Crooked Chicago Teamsters boss Frank Coli Jr. had a good thing going — a highly profitable extortion scheme. The last thing he wanted was some do-gooder screwing it up.
“You can’t have an (expletive deleted) rat in the woodpile. You can’t have a whistle-blower here,” Coli said in an FBI-recorded conversation.
That, of course, depends on the perspective of the rat, which became clear last week when Coli decided that being a rat has its advantages.
The veteran labor leader and backstage political heavyweight pleaded guilty at a Chicago federal court as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors to become a cooperating witness in a long-standing probe into corruption at various levels of government in Illinois.
After Coli agreed to flip for the feds, The Chicago Tribune predicted his “cooperation is sure to cause waves amid Illinois political circles.”
Sure enough, three days later, the fallout began.
Federal prosecutors indicted state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, a Democrat from Villa Park and cousin of Senate President John Cullerton, on charges of conspiring with Coli to accept a no-show job as a Teamsters union recruiter.
All told, the feds allege, Cullerton scammed Teamsters out of $274,066.
Cullerton’s lawyer, John T. Theis, attacked the indictment, defending his client’s virtue and challenging Coli’s credibility.
“The action by the U.S. Department of Justice. ... is the result of false claims by disgraced Teamsters boss John Coli in an apparent attempt to avoid penalties for his wrongdoing,” said Theis. ”These allegations are simply not true. ...”
Senate President Cullerton wasn’t nearly so forceful in defending his cousin and colleague.
Cullerton issued a brief statement: “This is clearly part of an ongoing investigation. The Senate President reminds everyone we have a system of justice that presumes everyone innocent until proven otherwise.”
A man with broad connections in state and municipal government, Coli represents a potentially valuable witness who can tell investigators where the bodies are buried. One avenue of investigation involves state grant money funneled by powerful politicos in the administration of former Gov. Pat Quinn to Cinespace, a television production studio in Chicago.
The Coli probe is just one of a series of pending federal investigations that already have targeted some powerful politicos and threaten to touch others.
They include the indictment of powerful Alderman Ed Burke and spin-off probes of his efforts to shake down private interests doing business with the city of Chicago.
Federal investigators reportedly recorded thousands of Burke’s phone calls, and the results are expected to implicate other city council members.
Federal investigators also have targeted friends and political associates of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. They’ve executed multiple search warrants at the homes of Madigan confederates in a probe reportedly related to Madigan’s efforts to secure employment as a Commonwealth Edison lobbyist for a longtime political friend.
Madigan has escaped previous investigations without breaking a sweat. But he’s concerned enough about the current probe to solicit and receive multiple $100,000 contributions from fellow politicos to pay anticipated legal bills.
Finally, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and associates remain the subject of another criminal probe related to alleged fraud stemming from a scheme to reduce the property tax assessments at one of his palatial residences in Chicago.
The alleged fraud cost Cook County taxpayers more than $300,000. The governor has denied any improprieties. But he paid back the money after a Cook County inspector general issued an investigative report that laid bare the details of the effort to reduce the residence’s property tax assessment, questioned its legality and invited a criminal probe.
Coli pleaded guilty to extorting payments from Alex Pissios, president of Cinespace Studio, where network television shows like “Chicago P.D.” and “Empire” are produced. Unless he was paid $25,000 quarterly, Coli threatened strikes by Teamsters that would bring production to a halt.
Pissios, however, was working with the FBI, recording Coli’s extortion threats.
As long as Coli testifies truthfully, prosecutors have agreed to recommend a prison sentence of just 18 months. The union executive reportedly collected more than $500,000 in extortion payments over the years.
A onetime member of the Teamsters who drove a truck for Hostess cupcakes, Cullerton was forced to leave the union when he was elected to the Illinois Senate in 2012.
The indictment alleges that Cullerton conspired with “Individual A” (Coli) to create a ghost-payroller position for Cullerton as a union recruiter.
As compensation for doing no work, Cullerton not only received a generous salary but performances bonuses, allowances for a cell phone and automobile as well as health and pension contributions.
Not everyone at the Teamsters was in on the plan Coli and Cullerton allegedly hatched. The indictment alleges that Cullerton “repeatedly failed to respond to efforts by his supervisors at Teamsters Joint Council 25 to contact him and routinely ignored their requests that he perform the job functions of an organizer.”
The government is asking that Cullerton forfeit $274,066 in cash or its equivalent.