Frank J. Cortese has spent his life in the shadows of government.
Cortese started as a “patronage guy” in the Illinois secretary of state’s office more than 30 years ago, helping oversee political hiring, later working in the governor’s office as a liaison to unions.
People who know Cortese say he got his nickname — “Frankie the Wheel” — because he was a “wheeler and dealer” who got things done.
Cortese left state government 16 years ago and became a lobbyist, schmoozing elected officials quietly but effectively in the state capitol and City Hall, primarily on behalf of labor leaders such as Chicago Teamsters boss John Coli Sr.
Coli’s muscle helped Cortese land his highest-profile client, Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, whose president Alexander S. Pissios wound up secretly recording conversations that led to Coli’s indictment two years ago for extorting money from the studio. Coli, who has left the Teamsters, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the feds.
And now Cortese has parlayed his government connections into a jackpot.
Over the past three years, state records show the gambling company Cortese runs from his office inside Cinespace took in more than $12 million, with Cortese’s company, the establishments hosting the machines and state government each pocketing roughly a third of that total.
His gambling company, FJC Technologies LLC, operates 75 video gambling machines at restaurants and bars in the suburbs from Aurora to Bridgeview to Mount Prospect. Salerno’s Pizza is his biggest customer, with 20 machines in four locations.
Pissios’ attorney says the video gambling company pays rent to lease space from Pissios or Cinespace, which converted the former Ryerson Steel plant into a hulking movie studio with the help of $27.7 million in state grants Cortese helped obtain under then-Gov. Pat Quinn. The next governor, Bruce Rauner, forced Cinespace to return one of those grants worth $10 million amid questions about how the money was going to be used.
Cortese’s name has repeatedly surfaced during the feds’ on-going investigation of Coli and Cinespace.
He was in the middle of the FBI’s inquiry regarding the purchase of a diamond engagement ring that Quinn’s campaign manager, Louis Bertuca, gave to his fiancee, Brooke Anderson, who was Quinn’s press secretary. Pissios has told the feds he contributed $500 towards the purchase of the ring, all at Cortese’s suggestion around the time Cinespace sought its last state grant.
Cortese — who was married in 2011 by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, wife of Ald. Edward M. Burke — runs his lobbying activities from the Loop office of Professional National Title Network, owned by attorney Kevin J. Cooney. Cooney provided his 76-foot yacht and two-person crew so Coli could sail around Italy, one of many illegal benefits the feds say the Teamsters boss reaped.
And Cortese’s lobbying business, Government Consulting Services of Illinois, subcontracts work to former Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski, who retired from the City Council in May 2018 and is now under federal investigation. It’s unclear what work Cortese has assigned to Zalewski, who is a registered lobbyist at the state capitol. But Zalewski’s criminal defense attorney, Thomas Breen, says it doesn’t involve Cinespace. Breen also represents Pissios, who was facing charges of bankruptcy fraud when he agreed to cooperate against Coli, and received a non-prosecution agreement from the feds.
Cortese, 55, stopped lobbying for the Teamsters a few months ago and he has terminated all his lobbying activities at City Hall. He didn’t respond to messages left at his businesses in Chicago or his home in west suburban La Grange, or with his lawyers.
Since 2006, Cortese and his companies have made campaign contributions totaling $187,225 to various politicians, including Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, state Senate President John Cullerton, former Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, former state Sen. James DeLeo and state Sen. Steven Landek, who is also the mayor of Bridgeview where Cortese operates 10 video gambling machines.
Raised in Bridgeport, Cortese was managing a small restaurant just north of Sox Park when he landed a job in 1987 with then-Illinois Secretary of State Jim Edgar. Cortese, at 23, started in the personnel department. After Edgar was elected governor in 1990, Cortese landed jobs with other state agencies, ending up in the governor’s office under Edgar and his successor, Gov. George Ryan, as a conduit to labor leaders who usually aligned themselves with Democrats rather than Republicans like Edgar and Ryan.
“Frank worked in, what we could legally call then, the patronage office,” Edgar said. “He was a very personable guy. He was hardworking.”
Edgar said Cortese worked for patronage director Janis Cellini. Cellini’s brother, William F. Cellini, was a Republican power broker who went to prison for attempted extortion related to state pension fund investments.
Although Cortese isn’t a lawyer, the law firm of Greenberg Traurig hired him in 2001 for its lobbying practice. The firm’s lobbying practice was led by two attorneys — Brian F. Hynes and Victor Reyes. Hynes is a close associate of former Ald. Danny Solis, who secretly recorded conversations with Ald. Edward M. Burke. Reyes is a former top aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley, and Reyes was also caught on the Solis wiretaps. The lobbying team also included Elgie Sims Jr., who is now a state senator.
After a few years, the law firm’s lobbying group went out on its own, picking up various clients including the Teamsters and Cinespace. Pissios has told the feds he hired Cortese at Coli’s urging a decade ago, bypassing another lobbyist, John Kelly Jr., who was the choice of James Banks, a clout-heavy zoning lawyer and chairman of Belmont Bank & Trust, where the studio deposited the state grants.
Eight years ago, Cortese set up his own lobbying business, Government Consulting Services of Illinois, with the help of a clout-heavy law firm of Burke Burns & Pinelli, whose attorneys have donated heavily to Madigan’s campaigns over the years. Among the partners at the firm: state Sen. Don Harmon, who is vying to replace the retiring Cullerton as Illinois Senate president. Cortese used the law firm to set up his gambling company four years ago, records show.
Cortese, who is registered to lobby state and city officials, has a string of clients, including Cooney’s title company, Cinespace, several unions connected to the movie studio, including the Theatrical Stage Employees Union Local 2, and a handful of suburban municipalities, including Bridgeview and Oak Lawn where Cortese operates video gambling machines.
Cortese is the sole owner of the gambling company, according to documents submitted to the Illinois Gaming Board by his lawyers, who include William Bogot and Donna More, who is planning to challenge Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in next year’s election.
More declined to talk about Cortese.
Cortese is also part of an on-going battle over land the Chicago Board of Education controls at 31st and Kedzie, the former home of the Washburne Trade School.
Cinespace and St. Anthony Hospital both want to redevelop the site, and both sides met earlier this year with officials at City Hall to try to work out a deal.
Reyes was at the meeting representing St. Anthony, and Pissios and Cortese were there on behalf of Cinespace.