Union boss receives 19-month prison sentence for extorting $325K from film studio

Union boss receives 19-month prison sentence for extorting $325K from film studio

A former Teamsters secretary-treasurer was sentenced to 19 months in prison for extorting $325,000 from a Chicago film studio. The judge refused to give probation, saying “there is a price we all pay for public corruption.”

Former Teamsters union boss John Coli Sr. was sentenced to 19 months in federal prison Oct. 26 for extorting $325,000 in cash payments from a Chicago film studio.

His sentence could have been harsher had he not helped federal prosecutors nab former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton.

Coli, the former secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 727, pled guilty to charges of threatening to shut down the studio with a labor strike unless the president paid Coli $25,000 per quarter. The longtime labor leader also conceded to falsifying income tax returns in 2019.

Cinespace Film Studio President Alex Pissios recorded Coli’s threats on tape while cooperating with federal investigators. He warned Pissios, “We’ll shut it down tomorrow. We’ll shut it down within an hour … I will f-ing have a picket line up here, and everything will stop.” Cinespace produces “Chicago Fire” and “Empire.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office wrote in a recent filing that Coli deserved 19 months behind bars for orchestrating a “prolonged, calculated and deliberate” extortion scheme.

“This was not some technical violation of the statute; Coli did not receive small knickknacks, chocolates or promotional products,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu wrote. “The picture painted here is not of a moment’s indiscretion, or one bad decision, but rather a conscious, prolonged effort by defendant Coli to exploit his position of trust for private gain.”

U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer rejected defense calls for probation, telling Coli, “There is a price we all pay for public corruption.”

“That it’s the way of the world to take advantage and line one’s own pockets so long as nobody finds out about it,” Pallmeyer said. “That is damaging to the fabric of society in a really significant way.”

Coli get a break in his sentence thanks to his cooperation with federal investigators to secure an embezzlement conviction against Cullerton. Cullerton was also a sponsor of the bill asking voters Nov. 8 to put government union power guarantees in the Illinois Constitution.

The former state senator later pled guilty in March 2022 to accepting $248,000 in payments for a fraudulent job entailing little to no work for Teamsters Local 734. He was sentenced June 21 to one year in federal prison.

The Villa Park Democrat collected pension benefits during the trial until his embezzlement conviction. He’s one of eight former Illinois General Assembly members to face federal charges in the past three years.

In the past 20 years, corruption has cost taxpayers over $10.6 billion in lost economic growth, or more than $830 per Illinoisan. Illinois is ranked as the nation’s second-most corrupt state.

State elected leaders and their cozy relationship with government unions have driven much of the corruption, including empowering indicted former House Speaker Mike Madigan. Amendment 1 would return much of the power government unions lost when Madigan fell.

Correction: Previous versions of this story incorrectly stated Cullerton would retain his pension after conviction. He has lost his pension.

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