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Feds flipping ex-Teamster Coli as big as getting any alderman to cooperate — except one

The big question, of course, is what Coli’s cooperation means to the many federal probes involving Chicago’s political elite that already have surfaced — as well as to those yet to be revealed.

Teamster boss John T. Coli, (right) announces endorsement of Rahm Emanuel in 2011.
Teamster boss John T. Coli, (right) announces Teamsters Joint Council 25’s endorsement of Rahm Emanuel for Chicago mayor at Panama Banana, 2404 S. Wolcott in 2011. File Photo.
John H. White/Chicago Sun-Times

It was late January 2011, and first-time mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel had a problem: Organized labor didn’t like him.

Prompted in part by Emanuel comments suggesting he might cut pensions to city workers, unions were lining up one-by-one behind his strongest opponent, Gery Chico.

That’s when local Teamsters President John T. Coli rode to the future mayor’s rescue.

With the tropical fruit on the loading dock of Panama Banana Distributing Company providing the perfect visual backdrop, Coli pledged the support of Chicago area Teamsters to Emanuel’s campaign.

“It is clear Rahm Emanuel is the only choice for the Teamsters. We are ready to support his candidacy at all costs,” Coli said as the union workers cheered.

The endorsement was important because it inoculated Emanuel against a growing political narrative at the time that he was anti-union.

After all, what union shouts “UNION!” to the public more than the Teamsters, even if more discerning observers of the labor scene knew to be wary of the union’s history of its leadership being for sale.

It will be a while before another Teamsters boss can provide political cover to an Illinois politician.

Coli made sure of that Tuesday when he pleaded guilty to extorting Chicago’s Cinespace studio and agreed to cooperate in unspecified other federal investigations.

The big question, of course, is what Coli’s cooperation means to the many federal probes involving Chicago’s political elite that already have surfaced — as well as to those yet to be revealed.

Am I suggesting Coli could implicate Emanuel in some wrongdoing? Not at all. I know nothing of the sort beyond Coli playing an influential role in the early years of Emanuel’s administration.

I’m just trying to explain how important a political player Coli was in Chicago, and to suggest that his conviction and cooperation should be understood to be every bit as significant as any alderman known to be under investigation, other than Ed Burke, that is.

John T. Coli Sr.
Former longtime Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. leaves the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after pleading guilty to receiving a prohibited payment and filing a false income tax return, Tuesday morning, July 30, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

I don’t think we know at this point exactly where Coli could take federal investigators, although the logical place is deeper into the studio, which is widely believed to be a honeypot for connected people — political and otherwise.

Coli was known to be a key player in bringing the studio to Chicago, and in lining up the state grant funding that fueled it.

No wonder studio executives might have been amenable to paying him $325,000 in bribes under the table, above and beyond his threats to take his workers out on strike if they didn’t continue the payments.

Coli also took cash and other illegal benefits from businesses that had a vendor relationship with the Teamsters and its pension funds. These benefits included the free use of a yacht.

Too bad the plea agreement doesn’t identify those other “victims.”

Naturally, Coli didn’t pay income taxes on any of this.

It’s particularly irritating because it’s the kind of stuff that gives unions a bad name by creating the perception that all union leaders are corrupt.

In exchange for his cooperation, Coli could walk away in the end with a sentence of less than two years in prison, prosecutors agreed.

For that, he’d better give them something good. Something better than a case of bananas.