John Coli Sr., a former Chicago-area union boss who was influential in Democratic politics, pleaded guilty Tuesday to an illegal shakedown and tax fraud.
Coli, who was an early backer of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, admitted to extorting quarterly payments of $225,000 from a Chicago company and filing false tax returns. Federal prosecutors had charged him with 13 counts of wrongdoing.
Prosecutors had accused Coli of shaking down the head of the major Chicago film studio Cinespace, a one-time state grant recipient where a series of network television programs have been filmed, including NBC’s Chicago Fire and Fox’s Empire. The government accused Coli of threatening work stoppages and labor unrest at the studio, which employs Teamsters members, unless Cinespace paid him off.
During Tuesday’s hearing in front of Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, a federal prosecutor read quotes from Coli to back up their evidence against him. Coli admitted in court to saying, “I will f***ing have a picket line up here and everything will stop.”
He also said: “You can’t have a f***ing rat in a wood pile. You can’t have a whistleblower here,” according to prosecutors.
By pleading guilty, Coli could see his prison time reduced to nearly three years. Federal prosecutors asked Pallmeyer to delay Coli’s sentencing hearing while he cooperates in other investigations, though his level of cooperation is not yet clear. Depending on that cooperation, Coli’s prison sentence could be reduced to closer to two years. Coli also must pay $117,500 in restitution.
Earlier this year, WBEZ reported federal prosecutors had subpoenaed attendance, travel and reimbursement records and emails involving state Sen.Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, as part of its investigation into the labor council.
During the three-year period in which investigators are seeking records, Cullerton — now chairman of the Senate Labor Committee — disclosed in his state economic interest statements that he had received income as an “organizer” for Teamsters Joint Council 25.
Cullerton has not been charged with wrongdoing.
Teamsters Joint Council 25, a Park Ridge-based labor umbrella group, is comprised of 26 locals and more than 100,000 members in Illinois and Northwest Indiana, including 4,600 who work for Illinois state government.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.