A Cook County judge has handed a stinging rebuke to John Coli, a major union backer of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, ordering him and a Teamsters local that represents more than 12,000 government employees to pay more than $2.3 million to resolve a lawsuit over a broken lease for offices in Des Plaines.
Judge Raymond W. Mitchell ruled in favor of the Des Plaines building’s owners, who had sued Coli and Teamsters Local 700. The union represents city of Chicago, Cook County, state and suburban workers.
In 2010, barely a year into a 15-year, rent-to-own deal for the building in Des Plaines, the union’s leaders broke the lease and moved Local 700 to an office building in Park Ridge that another Teamsters organization headed by Coli had just bought.
The lease in Des Plaines had been signed by officials of Teamsters Local 726, which at the time represented union members on Chicago’s city payroll. But the Teamsters international in Washington, D.C., subsequently dissolved Local 726, and its members moved to the new Local 700.
Leaders of Local 700 argued the lease for the offices at 1550 Mount Prospect Rd. in Des Plaines wasn’t binding on them and stopped rent payments, prompting the suit.
In a ruling dated July 14, the judge said Local 700 was the successor to Local 726 and that union leaders had wrongly tried “to escape liability” for the lease in Des Plaines.
The judge focused blame on Coli, who is the top Teamsters official in the Chicago area and one of the most powerful leaders of the union in the country. Coli was among Emanuel’s earliest supporters in his first mayoral bid, endorsing him in the fall of 2010, at a time when few labor leaders supported Emanuel.
“Coli’s actions are unjustified and not protected . . . precisely because he orchestrated an unlawful act: a scheme to defraud a creditor,” Mitchell wrote.
The judge wrote that Coli had urged the dissolution of the old union and, as trustee of the newly created Local 700, “unilaterally chose to accept all of the assets of Local 726 while repudiating its most significant liability, the [Des Plaines] lease.”
Mitchell also pointed out that Coli “alone decided to abandon” the Des Plaines offices and move Local 700 to the Park Ridge building.
The pension fund of another Teamsters group, Local 727 — which the judge noted is “controlled by Coli and his son” — owns the Park Ridge building.
The move to Park Ridge “was plainly against the interest of the members of Local 700 and wholly unjustified,” the judge wrote.
Mitchell also wrote that “the court is mindful that its decision here imposes a financial burden that may ultimately be born by the hardworking men and women of Teamsters Local 700” but said the law was clear.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2013 that Coli’s sister, Susan Fosco, was property manager for the Park Ridge office building, at 1300 W. Higgins Rd.
Mitchell ordered Local 700 and Coli to pay nearly $2 million in damages for breaking the lease in Des Plaines and also awarded more than $300,000 in legal fees and costs to the plaintiffs, who were represented by attorney Richard K. Hellerman.
A spokesman for Coli and the Teamsters did not return calls.
In a court filing, lawyers for Local 700 are asking Mitchell to reconsider his ruling, saying the leaders of the old Local 726 did not have the authority to sign the lease in Des Plaines.
The Teamsters had agreed to rent that building for five years for more than $16,000 a month, with an option to buy it for $2.15 million.
Coli is was paid more than $347,000 in 2014, taking salaries from Local 727, the union’s joint council for the Chicago area and the international, according to federal records.
Local 727 also paid son John Coli Jr. nearly $257,000 as president and business manager last year, while the elder Coli’s brother William Coli made more than $255,000 managing the union’s benefit funds between March 1, 2013 and Feb. 28, 2014, the documents show.
Ken Paff, an activist with the Detroit-based Teamsters for a Democratic Union, said John Coli’s actions in the real estate dealings were “clearly for his own benefit and not for the members.”
“It’s typical of his actions,” Paff said Friday. “He’s completely self-serving. Look at all his family members on the payroll at fat salaries.”