Teamsters Boss Arrested for Extorting Money from Chicago Film Studios

Federal authorities made secret recordings at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios as part of an investigation into a Teamsters union boss who was charged with extorting the business. Who knows whether this extortion rap will stick or if the union boss will be acquitted like the Teamsters who extorted the Top Chef program but were acquitted on a technicality.

Surveillance recordings between union head John Coli, Sr., and the alleged victim, Cinespace president Alex Pissios, were critical in charging the union with extorting $100,000 in cash from the studio which bills itself as the largest studio outside of Hollywood. Chicago Fire and Chicago PD television shows are filmed there as was the movie “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” among others.

The indictment against Coli alleges he began shaking down the studio around October 2016 when he was president of Teamsters Joint Council 25, a labor organization that represents the Teamsters Locals in Chicago and Northwest Indiana. He allegedly accepted five payoffs totaling $75,000 in 2016 and $25,000 in 2017 after using “fear of economic loss from threatened work stoppages and other labor unrest unless such cash payments were made.”

These cases are not without a wrinkle, though. According to an article in Chicago Tribune about this issue:

In the early days of the studio, its leaders counted Coli as a key ally. In a 2011 interview in the Tribune, the studio’s founder, Greek studio magnate Nick Mirkopoulos, praised Coli’s role in getting Cinespace started. ‘The Teamsters – John Coli – they were more than fair, and they play the game excellent,’ said Mirkopoulos, who died in 2013 and left Pissios to run the business. ‘We make good teammates.’

Was Coli shaking down the studio from the beginning? Was Mirkopoulos too intimidated to blow the whistle? Did Pissio stop making payments to Coli when he started running the business? It is plausible the studio paid $25,000 per year to keep Coli happy, stopped in 2013 when Pissio took over, Pissio realized it was “in his best interest” to pay $25,000 for each of 2014, 2015, and 2016 (the $75,000 paid in 2016) and $25,000 in 2017 but then turned the arrangement over to the FBI. I’m just guessing…..

Matt Austin owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm based in Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can reach Matt by calling him at (614) 285-5342 or emailing him at Matt@MattAustinLaborLaw.com.

Why Teamsters were Acquitted After Menacing the “Top Chef” Crew

I remember where I was when I first blogged about this case – a hotel in San Francisco. Some things just stick with me. Perhaps I remember this because I found the actions of the Teamsters so outlandish. As outlandish as they were, they were, unfortunately, lawful – and had been since 1973.

This case arose out of events in 2014 when the Top Chef television crew was filming at a restaurant in Boston. The union used non-union vehicle drivers, but Teamsters Local 25 wanted the show to hire Teamster drivers. The show did not use Teamster drivers because it already had (non-union) employees serve as drivers.

According to Padma Lakshmi, celebrity host of Top Chef, a car in which she was a passenger tried to enter the restaurant’s parking lot to begin filming but was blocked by Teamster Local 25 members. The Teamsters “swarmed” Lakshmi’s vehicle and were “furious.” One Teamster leaned his arm into the car and said: “Lookee here, what a pretty face,” or “what a shame about that pretty face.” Lakshmi interpreted this to be a threat to her physical safety. She testified she was terrified over this, and a witnessed confirmed Lakshmi was stunned. That’s not all. The Teamsters vociferously slurred racist, misogynist, and homophobic taunts to the show’s crew while nine of the show’s production vehicles had their tires slashed.

Sounds pretty bad, right? Prosecutors agreed, and charged the Teamsters members with attempted extortion and conspiracy to extort. But, since the U.S. Supreme Court case U.S. v. Enmons (1973), this activity is lawful, and the Teamsters were acquitted. As summed up by one of the Teamsters’ lawyers, “it’s not unlawful to be mean.”

The Hobbs Act says it is illegal (criminal extortion) to threaten or use violence to obtain the property of another without consent. That is exactly what the Teamsters did here. But, Enmons, in interpreting the Hobbs Act, held that union member conduct, even if at times violent or destructive, cannot be prosecuted as criminally extortionate when that conduct was intended to further “legitimate union objectives, such as higher wages in return for genuine services that the employer seeks.” Here, Teamsters argued that their actions were intended for the lawful purpose of influencing the production company to hire Teamster drivers and to pay Teamster wages for driving services needed by the production company.

I hope this case is further appealed to the United States Supreme Court (and the Court takes it). A crime should be a crime. The Supreme Court should re-evaluate the immunity from extortionate crimes that Enmons provides unions.

Matt Austin owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm based in Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can reach Matt by calling him at (614) 285-5342 or emailing him at Matt@MattAustinLaborLaw.com.

Union Boss Demanded Employees Pay Into His Personal Slush Fund

The former head of a Michigan construction union was recently charged with extorting union business agents and other employees to each pay $5,000 of their salaries per year into his personal “Slate Fund.” The fund was to be used for union election campaign expenses. But, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, the union boss used most of the money for his own personal benefit and fired anyone who threatened to turn him in. He gave some of the money to his daughter as a wedding present and of course paid for non-work related and expensive meals and liquor with it. While these accusations are embarrassment enough, having the public learn that he spent $50,000 on special rims for his union-issued Cadillac is the cherry on top.

Matt Austin is a lawyer based in the Columbus, Ohio office of Roetzel & Andress, LPA who limits his practice to representing employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can call Matt at (614) 723-2010 or email him at maustin@ralaw.com.