Corrupt ex-Teamsters boss put state Sen. Thomas Cullerton on payroll in do-nothing job, federal charges allege

Chicago Tribune
By Jason Meisner and Dan Petrella

Illinois state Sen. Thomas E. Cullerton has been indicted by federal authorities on embezzlement charges alleging he pocketed almost $275,000 in salary and benefits from the Teamsters union despite doing little or no work.

The disclosure of the charges against Cullerton, D-Villa Park, came three days after former longtime Teamsters boss John Coli Sr. pleaded guilty to extortion charges and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities.

According to the indictment made public Friday, Coli conspired with Cullerton in 2013 to give the newly elected senator a do-nothing job with the Teamsters. Over the next three years, the two ignored complaints from supervisors when Cullerton failed to even show up for work, according to the charges.

The indictment charged Cullerton with 39 counts of embezzlement and one count each of conspiracy and making false statements. Each of the charges carry up to five years in prison if convicted. He will be arraigned later in Chicago’s federal court.

Cullerton, 49, a distant cousin of Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, previously served as village president of Villa Park and was first elected to the state Senate in 2012.

In an emailed statement, Cullerton’s attorney, John Theis, called the charges untrue and vowed to fight the allegations.

“As an honorably discharged veteran of the United States Army and highly respected public servant, Tom Cullerton is a person who is dedicated to his family, constituents and all Illinoisans,” Theis said. “The action by the U.S. Department of Justice has nothing to do with Mr. Cullerton’s work in the Illinois State Senate but is the result of false claims by disgraced Teamsters boss John Coli in an apparent attempt to avoid penalties for his wrongdoing.”

John Patterson, a spokesman for John Cullerton, said Friday the charges were “clearly part of an ongoing investigation” but declined to comment on the specific allegations.

No one answered the door Friday morning at Cullerton’s Villa Park home — decorated with a “Congrats Grad! Class of 2019” sign. A staff member at Cullerton’s district office said the senator was attending a family reunion out of town but declined to comment on the charges.

The indictment against Cullerton marks the latest development in a series of swirling public corruption investigations that stretch from City Hall to Springfield and involve some of the state’s most powerful politicians.

Longtime Chicago Ald. Edward Burke, one of the last vestiges of the city’s old Democratic machine, faces a sweeping racketeering indictment alleging he used his City Hall clout to steer business to his private law firm.

The Chicago Tribune has reported that the FBI is also investigating some of House Speaker Michael Madigan’s closest political allies, including former Ald. Michael Zalewski and longtime confidant and lobbyist Michael McClain of downstate Quincy.

The indictment against Cullerton, meanwhile, alleged that from March 2013 to February 2016 he fraudulently obtained $188,320 in salary, bonuses and cellphone and vehicle allowances from the Teamsters, as well as $64,068 in health and pension contributions. He used those proceeds to pay personal expenses such as his mortgage, utilities and groceries, according to the charges.

He also fraudulently received $21,678 in reimbursed medical claims, bringing the combined loss for the Teamsters to $274,066, authorities alleged.

According to the indictment, Cullerton had once been a member of Teamsters Local Union 734 before assuming his state Senate seat in January 2013.

That March, Coli added Cullerton to the payroll as an “organizer” for the union, according to the charges. The indictment identified Coli only as “Individual A” but made it clear it was him by identifying Individual A as president of Teamsters Joint Council 25, a post Coli held at the time.

Over the next three years, Cullerton did little or no work as an organizer. In fact, when union supervisors asked that he perform his job duties, Cullerton “routinely ignored their requests,” the indictment said.

Coli, in turn, “ignored and failed to act upon repeated complaints” by a supervisor that Cullerton didn’t even show up for work, the charges alleged.

The charges come four months after it was first revealed that the federal investigation into Coli had branched out to Cullerton’s office.

In February, the same federal grand jury investigating Coli subpoenaed the Illinois Senate for documents on Cullerton’s reimbursements for “travel, lodging, meals, cellular phone and vehicle allowances” from Feb. 1, 2013, through March 3, 2016.

Coli, meanwhile, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count each of receiving illegal payments and filing a false income tax return, admitting he extorted a combined $325,000 from Individual 1 — previously identified by the Tribune as Alex Pissios., president of Cinespace Chicago Film Studios on the West Side.

According to his plea agreement, Coli pocketed a series of $25,000 quarterly payments between 2014 and 2017 that he failed to report on his tax returns, cheating the Internal Revenue Service and state of Illinois out of about a combined $117,000 in tax revenue.

As part of his deal with prosecutors, Coli, a nationally known fixture in the Teamsters before his retirement at about the time of his indictment in 2017, agreed to cooperate with federal authorities in any ongoing investigations — a development sure to cause concern within Illinois political circles given his sway with some of the city and state’s most powerful elected officials.

Coli’s plea agreement calls for a sentence of up to about three years in prison, but prosecutors will recommend he be given about half that time if he cooperates fully.

Cullerton was the seventh Illinois legislator to be hit with criminal charges since 2012, but only two of them — former state Reps. Derrick Smith and Constance Howard — were accused of wrongdoing in their official public duties.

Smith was sentenced to five months in federal prison in 2015 for taking $7,000 in bribe money — which he referred to on undercover recordings as “cheddar” — from a political operative who turned out to be an FBI informant. That same year, Howard was given a three-month prison term for siphoning as much as $28,000 from a scholarship fund she created to benefit needy students.

A graduate of Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Cullerton attended the University of Kansas and was an infantryman in the Army from 1990 to 1993.

He was elected a Villa Park village trustee in 2005 and became the west suburb’s president in 2009, a post he held until he joined the Senate.

Until his indictment Cullerton was perhaps best known for helping lead the legislature’s inquiry into the deadly outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease at a state veterans home in Quincy.

For his work as a senator, Cullerton is in line this year to make about $80,000, including a $10,500 stipend as chairman of the Labor Committee.

The Teamsters have contributed nearly $96,000 to Cullerton’s campaign fund since 2012, according to state campaign finance records. A fundraiser held by Joint Council 25 in December 2017 raised more than $70,000, according to the union’s website and campaign finance records.

Villa Park Village President Albert Bulthuis, who worked with Cullerton years ago when both served on the village board, said the indictment caught him by surprise.

“Tom was very responsive to the needs of the village residents and the matters that came before the village board,” Bulthuis said. “When he became state senator, he was also very responsive to the needs of the village.”

At a bill-signing event Friday in Chicago, Gov. J.B. Pritzker wouldn’t say if Cullerton should step down as chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, but he called news of the indictment “extraordinarily frustrating and disappointing.”

“We’ll have to wait to get more details about what’s occurred here,” Pritzker said. “I don’t have them.”