Former Teamsters boss John Coli gets 19 months in prison for illegal payments from Cinespace Studios

The feds enlisted Coli as a cooperator in 2019, just as a set of aggressive investigations into old-school, Chicago-style corruption turned public. He was seen as particularly significant given his ties to former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, former Chicago Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, and ex-Govs. Pat Quinn and Bruce Rauner.

SHARE Former Teamsters boss John Coli gets 19 months in prison for illegal payments from Cinespace Studios
Former Teamsters boss John Coli walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after a judge sentenced him to 19 months in prison, Wednesday morning, Oct. 26, 2022.

Former Teamsters boss John Coli was sentenced Wednesday to 19 months in prison for pocketing $325,000 in secret cash payments from Cinespace Chicago Film Studios.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The feds say former Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. once saw himself as “bigger than life.”

Bold, brash and full of bravado, they say Coli once bragged “you can cut my fingers off, I wouldn’t talk” about secret, under-the-table cash payments from Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. He threatened to call a strike and shut down the studio if he didn’t get his money.

But Wednesday in federal court, facing the judge who would decide if he’d go to prison, Coli seemed chastened as he explained “how truly sorry I am for my actions.” He also said, “I know that I have hurt the Teamsters.”

“I know what I did was wrong,” Coli said. “And I am ashamed of my behavior.”

Moments later, U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer sentenced Coli to 19 months in prison for taking $325,000 in illegal cash payments from Cinespace. The judge hinted that she’d be inclined to give Coli more time, but she acknowledged the deal he cut with prosecutors, in which he helped them also convict former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton.

“There’s a price we all pay for public corruption,” Pallmeyer told the courtroom.

Coli’s low-key sentencing hearing Wednesday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse ended what once seemed to be a harbinger of very bad news for many of Chicago’s most powerful politicians. Coli pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in 2019 just as a series of aggressive federal investigations into old-school, Chicago-style corruption turned public. 

The longtime labor leader had ties to then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, former Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, and ex-Govs. Pat Quinn and Bruce Rauner. Several public corruption cases followed, including Madigan’s racketeering indictment earlier this year, but the only case Coli appears to have had a hand in is the embezzlement case that landed Cullerton a one-year prison sentence.

Three years after his guilty plea, Coli looked noticeably thinner during his return Wednesday to the downtown federal courthouse. He wore a black suit and tie, and he wore a black face mask all throughout the hearing.

Defense attorney Joseph Duffy said Coli had a heart attack in February that “shortened his life.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu revealed during Wednesday’s hearing that federal investigators were aware that Cullerton had a do-nothing job with the Teamsters “before Mr. Coli began cooperating.” A grand jury indicted Cullerton just a few days after Coli’s guilty plea.

“It wasn’t a case where Mr. Coli was bringing us information that we didn’t have already,” Bhachu said.

Still, the prosecutor has given Coli credit for accepting responsibility, writing in a court memo that “it is easy to assemble a busload of public figures … who could not bring themselves to accept responsibility.”

Bhachu sought the 19-month sentence Pallmeyer handed down. But Duffy sought probation and home confinement. As he argued, he pointed out that Coli, in his leadership of the Teamsters, sought to improve conditions in the union for women and minorities. 

That earned a bit of a rebuke from Pallmeyer, who later said “treating Black employees as though they’re human beings is the absolute least that anybody could do. It’s not an extraordinary gesture.”

“It ought to be baseline that we treat one another with human dignity,” Pallmeyer said.

Bhachu told the judge some of Coli’s misconduct — including cheating the government out of $117,500 in taxes — might have been impossible to detect had it not been for the help of another government cooperator, Cinespace President Alex Pissios.

The Sun-Times has previously reported that Pissios signed a nonprosecution agreement that let him off the hook for failing to tell a bankruptcy judge about a $100,000 bank account he used to support his family and pay gambling debts.

Duffy explained that the payments to Coli began under Pissios’ uncle, Nick Mirkopoulos, who was grateful to Coli for his efforts to secure state grant money so Cinepsace could establish a studio in Chicago. Mirkopoulos died in December 2013, and the payments continued under Pissios.

“These payments were a product of friendship and gratitude,” Duffy told the judge. 

But Bhachu countered that, by the end of the feds’ investigation, Coli had become so accustomed to the money that he began leveling threats when Pissios came up $10,000 short.

The feds watched and recorded as Pissios paid Coli in July and October 2016 at the Greek Islands restaurant in the 200 block of South Halsted Street, court records show. Pissios gave Coli $25,000 in a FedEx envelope during the first meeting, but only handed over $15,000 during the second.

In a ruse for the feds, Pissios explained that an executive had questioned Pissios about his petty-cash withdrawals, which funded the payments to Coli. Several days later, Pissios suggested to Coli he might lose his job over it.

“We’ll shut it down tomorrow,” Coli said of Cinespace. “We’ll shut it down within an hour. … I will f---ing have a picket line up here and everything will stop.”

Coli also added, “There’s gonna be time-to-time unique things that are gonna come up that you’re gonna have to deal with … you can’t have a f---ing rat in a wood pile. You can’t have a whistleblower here.” 

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