Former Teamsters boss John Coli gets 19 months in prison for illegal payments from Cinespace Studios

John T. Coli | Sun-Times Media Wire

A federal judge Wednesday sentenced former Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. to 19 months in prison for illegally pocketing $325,000 in secret cash payments from Cinespace Chicago Film Studios.

The longtime labor leader conceded in 2019 that he had threatened to call a strike and shut down Cinespace if the secret payments he’d been receiving stopped. He told Cinespace President Alex 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."

Coli also once allegedly bragged that "you can cut my fingers off, I wouldn’t talk" about the secret payments, according to an FBI affidavit first obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

But the feds still wound up enlisting Coli as a cooperator in 2019, just as a set of aggressive investigations into old-school, Chicago-style corruption began to turn public.


Before he learned his sentence, Coli told U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer "how truly sorry I am for my actions. I know that I have hurt the Teamsters."

"I know what I did was wrong and I am ashamed of my behavior," Coli said.

Coli’s cooperation was seen as particularly significant given his ties to former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, former Chicago Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, and ex-Govs. Pat Quinn and Bruce Rauner.

Plenty of public corruption charges have followed in the years since, including Madigan’s indictment on racketeering charges. But Coli is only known to have had a hand in the embezzlement case that put former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton in prison earlier this year.

The Coli case is still emblematic of the methodical, yearslong process often required to build public corruption cases in federal court, though. It dates back to June 2016. That’s when Pissios, the Cinespace president and a government mole, began feeding information to law enforcement about Coli, court records show.

Pissios signed a "non-prosecution agreement" that let him off the hook for failing to tell a bankruptcy judge about a $100,000 bank account he used to support his family and pay gambling debts, the Sun-Times has previously reported. The feds told Pissios he could have faced a prison sentence of more than seven years if he were prosecuted, Coli’s attorneys say.

Pissios instead led investigators to Coli, who was indicted in 2017. Coli then helped them with Cullerton, who was indicted in 2019 and sentenced in June to a year in prison.

Still, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu revealed Wednesday that the feds were aware of Cullerton’s misconduct "before Mr. Coli began cooperating."

"It wasn’t a case where Mr. Coli was bringing us information that we didn’t have already," Bhachu said.

Coli asked last week for a sentence of home confinement and probation. Prosecutors said he should get a sentence of 19 months behind bars.

Joseph Duffy, Coli’s defense attorney, wrote in a court memo that the secret payments from Cinespace to Coli began under Pissios’ uncle, Nick Mirkopoulos, who was grateful to Coli for his efforts to secure state grant money so Cinespace could establish a studio in Chicago.

Mirkopoulous died in December 2013.

"These payments were a product of friendship and gratitude," Duffy said.

Nearly three years later, after Pissios turned on Coli, the feds watched and recorded as Pissios in 2016 made payments to Coli at the Greek Islands restaurant in the 200 block of South Halsted Street, according to the FBI affidavit.

Investigators saw Pissios and Coli leave the restaurant on July 7, 2016, and they watched as Pissios handed a FedEx envelope containing $25,000 to Coli outside the entrance, the affidavit said.

During a second meeting, on Oct. 4, 2016, Pissios allegedly told Coli that an executive had questioned Pissios about his petty cash withdrawals, which funded the payments to Coli. That story turned out to be a ruse suggested by investigators, but Pissios asked Coli what to do, the affidavit said.

Coli said, "Fire him."

"No matter how you try to put him in a corner, right, he’ll always be a problem," Coli allegedly added. "Once somebody’s a problem like that, even if you think you can out-leverage him and get him in a corner, you’ll always have one eye f—ing open looking at him. … He’s a rat."

Pissios allegedly later put a FedEx envelope containing $15,000 in Coli’s vehicle. Afterward, Coli complained in a phone call with Pissios that "some of the documents were missing out of what I was supposed to look at today," according to the affidavit. The feds say Coli was using coded language to point out that $10,000 was missing.

Pissios wound up explaining it was because of the issue with the executive. Nine days later, Coli made the threat to call a strike if he didn’t get his money. He added, "There’s gonna be time-to-time unique things that are gonna come up that you’re gonna have to deal with. … You can’t have a f—ing rat in a wood pile. You can’t have a whistleblower here."

Coli collected the missing $10,000 from Pissios on Nov. 29, 2016, according to the affidavit.