Indicted former Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. booted out by union
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He was one of the most powerful labor leaders in Chicago for a quarter century, winning lucrative union contracts from — and building crucial political alliances with — Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gov. Bruce Rauner and former Gov. Pat Quinn.
Now, indicted former Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. finds himself banished from the union’s ranks forever, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
On Jan. 10, James P. Hoffa — president of the Washington, D.C.-based International Brotherhood of Teamsters — approved the recommendation of a panel of three union leaders who called for Coli’s “permanent expulsion from membership,” the records show.
Teamsters officials kicked out Coli for good because he wouldn’t answer questions from a court-appointed union investigator, Joseph diGenova, who wanted to ask Coli about his federal corruption case in Chicago.
Federal prosecutors have accused Coli of extorting $325,000 from Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, where the hit TV shows “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.” are filmed.
DiGenova also wanted to ask Coli about deals that funneled millions of dollars to his son Joseph Coli’s Loop law firm, the Sun-Times has previously reported.
The newly obtained records show that Coli, accompanied by a lawyer, appeared before union officials at a hearing Dec. 11 at the Sheraton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel in Rosemont.
Citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Coli refused to testify. His lawyer argued that Coli should not have to answer questions while his criminal case — in which he has denied wrongdoing — is pending.
Members of the union panel that heard the disciplinary case against Coli wrote that they were “sympathetic to the difficult situation in which Brother Coli found himself” after his indictment. But they said his federal case was no excuse for failing to answer questions from the independent investigator — an offense punishable by expulsion under Teamsters rules.
Coli had maintained his membership in the union even after resigning his leadership positions prior to his indictment.
“Mindful that Brother Coli has had a long and otherwise unblemished career with the union, we nonetheless conclude that failing to cooperate with an investigation by [the independent investigator’s office] is among the most serious of offenses under the [Teamsters] constitution,” the panel said in its report Jan. 10.
Hoffa immediately approved the punishment, which also includes a permanent ban against Coli doing any consulting work for the Teamsters or having “any involvement in the affairs” of the union or its affiliates, the records show.
“In accordance with established precedent, this means that members are permanently prohibited from knowingly associating with him,” according to a written statement from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Coli’s lawyer, Corey Rubenstein of Chicago, did not return messages seeking comment.
Investigators with diGenova’s office, which is based in New York, first wanted to interview Coli on July 28, but Coli didn’t show up.
That snub led diGenova to ask Teamsters international officials in August to file charges against Coli for “obstructing, interfering and unreasonably failing to cooperate” with the office of the independent investigator. Its investigators also wanted to question Coli about HMC Healthworks, a union contractor.
At the time, diGenova told international union leaders: “Coli would have been questioned about his relationship with particular HMC employees. Coli also would have been questioned about the relationship of other service providers for local funds, including his son’s law firm, Illinois Advocates.”
DiGenova — a former federal prosecutor who investigates Teamsters corruption under a longstanding consent decree between the union and the Justice Department — cited a 2015 Sun-Times report about Illinois Advocates LLC.
One month to the day after Joseph Coli was admitted to practice law in Illinois in 2012, Illinois Advocates was named “exclusive provider” of legal services for the 9,000 members of Park Ridge-based Teamsters Local 727 — which John Coli led from 1992 until his indictment last summer.
Illinois Advocates was paid more than $6.2 million by arms of Local 727 between 2012 and Feb. 29, 2016, according to the most recent financial reports filed by the Teamsters with the U.S. Department of Labor.
HMC, based in Jupiter, Fla., sponsored a lavish party for a small group of Teamsters officials during a union conference in Las Vegas in 2010. At the time, HMC was trying to become a vendor for the union, records from diGenova’s office show.
In a 2015 interview with diGenova’s office, Terrence Hancock — who replaced Coli as head of the joint Teamsters council for the Chicago area after Coli’s indictment — told investigators he and an HMC executive split the $8,344 tab for dinner and drinks at an upscale restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip.
Those attending the dinner at Mastro’s Ocean Club feasted on porterhouse steaks, lobster, crab legs, oysters, expensive bottles of wine and top-shelf vodka, according to the restaurant tab investigators unearthed.
Around the table that night in Las Vegas were: Coli; longtime Chicago Teamsters spokesman Brian Rainville; Coli protégé Becky Strzechowski, who heads the union local representing city of Chicago garbage-truck and snowplow drivers; and Coli’s other son, John Coli Jr., who leads Teamsters Local 727.
After the dinner, HMC got hired and ended up being paid more than $1.9 million by Local 727’s health fund and by Teamsters Local 731, based in Burr Ridge.
Charles Carberry, chief counsel for diGenova’s office, wouldn’t comment on Coli’s expulsion. Nor would he say whether investigators are continuing to look into the union’s deals with Illinois Advocates and HMC, though he says, “The fact that Coli is out of the union wouldn’t automatically stop us from investigating.”
Ken Paff, of the dissident group Teamsters for a Democratic Union, says: “I think it’s entirely appropriate that Coli was expelled. However, to really clean up the union, we need fundamental change in the leadership.”
Paff says it’s hard to envision reform in the Teamsters as long as John Coli Jr. continues to lead Local 727, which paid Coli Jr. more than $251,000 in 2016, records show.
Paff is also a critic of the union deals with the law firm of Joseph Coli.
“He still has his family in power,” Paff says of John Coli Sr.
Teamsters officials say that, despite the ban on contact between union members and John Coli Sr., he can still have contact with family members who are Teamsters officials — but not about union business.
The elder Coli, 57, is the son of former longtime Local 727 boss Eco James Coli and joined the union in 1971.
For years, John Coli Sr. got three salaries from the Teamsters, including paychecks from the local, from the international and from Joint Council 25, the umbrella group for more than 100,000 union members in Illinois.
Altogether, Coli was paid about $341,000 by the three arms of the union in 2016, according to Labor Department records.
He’s accused of underreporting his income on his tax returns for 2014, 2015 and 2016 and filing inaccurate reports with the Labor Department.
According to the indictment against him, Coli demanded and got bribes from Cinespace, the clout-heavy studio that’s received millions of dollars in state grants. Prosecutors say Coli threatened work stoppages and labor trouble if he didn’t get payments from Cinespace every three months.
Cinespace got five grants for a total of $27.3 million from the Quinn administration. A source has told the Sun-Times that Coli helped Cinespace secure the grants.
After Quinn lost to Rauner in 2014, Coli became one of the few allies in organized labor for the new governor — who reappointed Coli’s brother Michael Coli to a state labor board soon after being elected.
Coli was perhaps best known in politics for his endorsement of Emanuel in his first run for mayor in 2011, when leaders of other unions had rejected Emanuel.
Contributing: Jon Seidel