State Senate’s game of musical chairs ends with accused ghost payroller Tom Cullerton not losing any money

Chicago Sun Times
By Tina Sfondeles

State Sen. Tom Cullerton has been removed as chair of the Illinois Senate’s Labor Committee, just days after being charged in a federal indictment for allegedly being a ghost payroller for the Teamsters — to the tune of $188,000 in salary benefits and $64,000 in health and pension contributions.

Cullerton will instead chair the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee — a decision made by Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, who is a cousin of the Villa Park Democrat. Tom Cullerton will still serve as a member the Labor Committee, however.

The shift in leadership posts ensures Tom Cullerton won’t lose any legislative compensation.

“After a discussion, it was a mutual decision that this was for the best,” John Patterson, spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Tom Cullerton on Tuesday said he is “honored to serve the Illinois Senate in any capacity requested of him.”

“As an honorably discharged veteran of the United States Army, he is incredibly proud to work closely with our distinguished veterans,” spokeswoman Lissa Druss said in a statement. “Sen. [Tom] Cullerton also vows to not let up on his work in the legislature with regards to the deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in our state.”

It’s unclear if and how the charges will further affect Tom Cullerton’s role as an elected official. His district covers part of DuPage County. His legislative base salary is just over $69,000.

But he also receives an extra stipend for chairing a committee — meaning he won’t lose any money by switching committees. State Sen. Omar Aquino, D-Chicago, will instead chair the Labor Committee, while state Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, the former head of the Veteran Affairs Committee has been bumped to Vice-Chair.

The Senate Labor Committee dealt with labor issues of importance to the Teamsters. And having a friendly chairman “helps with roll calls and votes,” a source told the Sun-Times.

According to the indictment, disgraced Teamsters boss John Coli Sr., identified as Individual A in the court record, hired Tom Cullerton “in or around March 2013” as an organizer. Tom Cullerton appeared to need the work, with the indictment noting that shortly after he was elected to the Illinois Senate he was an employee of Teamsters Local Union 734 but was fired from his job.

The new job allowed him to keep adding pension credits, and get a salary and benefits.

The feds allege Coli knew that Tom Cullerton ”was doing little or no work” for the Teamsters.

Tom Cullerton was paid even when he “attended sessions of the Illinois State Senate” and “was otherwise performing his duties as a Senator in Springfield, Illinois,” according to the indictment.

The “conspiracy” went on with the knowledge and consent of Coli, then head of Joint Council 25, according to Tom Cullerton’s indictment, which was made public the same week Coli pleaded guilty to a scheme in which he was shaking down Cinespace Chicago Film Studios in exchange for labor peace.

Federal prosecutors said in other court papers that Coli has agreed to cooperate with them — which could mean less prison time for him. And that “cooperation played a part in the Tom Cullerton indictment,” according to a source with knowledge of the investigation.

Neither the U.S. attorney’s office nor the FBI have commented on the case.

Tom Cullerton is a scion of the dynasty that gave Chicago legendary ward heeler P.J. “Parky” Cullerton and the famed “Cullerton seat” in the City Council.

He is a descendent of Edward Cullerton, one of Chicago’s original settlers. The family’s political clout began just before the Chicago Fire of 1871 with the election of saloon keeper Edward “Foxy” Cullerton and has continued almost uninterrupted ever since.

His attorney last week called Tom Cullerton “an honorably discharged veteran of the United States Army and highly respected public servant.”

“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,” attorney John Theis said in a statement. “These allegations are simply not true, and we will be defending the charges in court.”