A politically connected Chicago Teamsters union boss was indicated last week on federal charges for allegedly extorting $100,000 from an Illinois business.
John Coli Sr., who is thought to be one of the union’s most powerful members, was charged with threatening a work stoppage and various other labor unrest unless he received cash payoffs of at least $25,000 every 90 days from the business, whose name has not been disclosed.
The extortion that is alleged to have occurred was when Coli was the head of Teamsters Joint Council 25. This is a labor organization that leads more than 100,000 workers in Chicago and NW Indiana.
Coli, 57, who was an early supporter of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has been charged with a single count of attempted extortion and five counts of demanding and accepting prohibited payment as an official of a union.
The federal indictment is seeking forfeiture from Coli totaling at least $100,000. A federal arraignment has been set for federal court in Chicago, but the date is not yet released.
According to the 11-page federal indictment, Coli demanded that the company make quarterly payments of $25,000 to him in both 2016 and 2017. The indictment does not state how Coli could have suggested that he could damage the business if it did not pay what he was demanding. However, the federal filing did hint that it could have involved work stoppage threats.
Coli did not respond last week to requests for comment. However, a statement that was posted on the Teamsters Local 727 website stated that he intends to retire at the end of July after 46 years in the union.
In the published statement, Coli noted that it was time to start a new chapter in his life and he wanted to spend time with family. He also noted that he had made the decision after much reflection. He made no mention of the federal investigation and charges.
Coli previously was the international VP of the Central Region of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The entire Coli family has been very active in politics for many years. It is well known for providing large amounts of union cash to many candidates. Coli and various relatives also have been accused in civil litigation in state and federal court of running unions like rackets. They have denied these allegations.
In a 2011 deposition, he was asked why there are a lot of his relatives who are controlling the union’s pension funds, which total tens of millions of dollars. Coli, according to the transcript, told gave the following reply: ‘Go **** yourself.’ The attorney running the deposition asked if that meant that he would not answer the question. Coli stated that he believed the answer spoke for itself.
Coli supported Mayor Emanuel in his initial run for mayor at a time when the centrist Democrat had little union support. The Teamsters then gave $35,000 to Emanuel’s campaign in 2011, which included $15,000 for doing polling. The union gave even more to back the mayor’s second term bid, when it gave his campaign $134,000.
After Emanuel was elected, a union representative was put on the mayor’s transition team. Coli was appointed to a select group of campaign donors and leaders of the community who were in charge of planning the mayor’s inaugural.
Two months after the mayor took office, a local newspaper wrote a story about how Emanuel was demanding more accountability and sacrifice financially from the labor unions of Chicago, but not the Teamsters. The story also talked about how Coli’s union was in favor of the economic plans issued by the mayor, even with the plans that showed intent to send public work to private contractors.
Just one of the mayor’s nine work rule changes proposed for unions would have affected the Teamsters. Most of the 620 union workers the mayor wanted to lay off were in other unions.
Coli also was the co-chair of a city labor working group in 2011 that worked on determining what the new union work rule changes would be. Coli’s solid working relationship with Emanuel also was revealed in October 2011 when the mayor released new work rules for union employees.
However, controversy has followed Coli around for years. In 2003, Mayor Rod Blagojevich named Coli to the Illinois Tollway board. Coli quickly withdrew his name after there were questions about $100,000 in campaign contributions from the Teamsters to the former mayor.
Many Types of Extortion Under Federal Law
Federal law details several types of extortion that can be prosecuted by a US attorney. Extortion can be a stand-alone federal crime, or it can be part of a pattern of criminal behavior including corruption and bribery. Extortion is a separate crime from various other types of RICO or racketeering and theft, because extortion always contains either written or verbal theft.
All states in the US have extortion laws and corruption laws, but federal extortion laws are more focused on threats that affect federal workers, or threats that stem from federal workers. Extortion may be treated as a federal crime even when no federal person was party to a crime, if the threat crosses state lines.
Some of the types of extortion under federal statute that could be relevant to the Coli case are:
- Mailing of threatening communications across state lines, even if it occurs from a foreign nation. This can be prosecuted as a federal extortion case, especially if the idea was to coerce the victim to provide the threatening person with some type of valuable consideration.
- Receiving any proceeds of extortion, no matter if you are the person who made the original threat. Anyone who receives extortion proceeds can be subjected to imprisonment from one to three years.
Extortion convictions at the federal level will usually result in prison and a fine. But the extent of any punishments depends upon the nature of the extortion and whether they were a direct party to the crime, and whether they knew they would benefit from the crime.