By REBECCA ANZEL
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — An Illinois state senator was formally accused of collecting a salary as well as health and pension benefits from a labor union “for which he did little or no work” by a federal grand jury Friday in Cook County.
Villa Park Democrat Tom Cullerton, who has served in the General Assembly since January 2013, is charged with 40 counts in an indictment alleging he “knowingly conspire(d)” to embezzle from the Teamsters Joint Council 25 and Teamsters Local Union 734 Unions. Cullerton is also facing one count alleging he lied on health forms.
John Theis, the senator’s attorney, said in an emailed statement to the Chicago Tribune that the allegations against Cullerton are “simply not true, and we will be defending the charges in court.”
“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 in the statement. “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.”
Theis is married to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis.
The federal government, in court documents, claims the senator’s purported actions caused the union to lose $274,066 from January 2013 through February 2016 — $188,320 in salary and allowances; $64,068 in medical and pension plan contributions; and $21,678 in “reimbursed medical claims.”
According to the indictment, Cullerton also received holiday bonuses for three years, and collected about $60,000 from January 15, 2015, through the end of January 2016.
The senator was a member of Teamsters Local Union 734 before being elected to the General Assembly. While in office, in March 2013, Cullerton was hired as a union organizer, according to court documents. That position was a full-time one that came with health and pension benefits.
The indictment alleges the senator “was doing little or no work for Teamsters Joint Council 25 during each pay period he was paid full-time salary as an organizer,” even though he “was paid a monthly car and telephone allowance.”
Those full-time wages continued while Cullerton fulfilled his obligations as a state senator, the court documents continue.
He was hired to the union position by John Coli, the former union leader who recently agreed to work with federal prosecutors as part of a plea deal. Coli said in federal court he was guilty of extorting a film studio in Chicago.
Cullerton reported the additional income in a Statement of Economic Interests form with the secretary of state’s office, as required by Illinois law, in 2013 and 2014 but not in 2015 or 2016, according to the indictment.
“This is clearly part of an ongoing investigation,” John Patterson, spokesperson for Senate President John Cullerton, said in an emailed statement. “The senate president reminds everyone we have a system of justice that presumes everyone innocent until proven otherwise.”
The senate president, a Democrat from Chicago, is a distant cousin of Sen. Tom Cullerton.
Federal prosecutors submitted a document asking that if Cullerton is found guilty of the charges against him, he should have to pay back $274,066, which they allege is traceable to the alleged offenses.
Rep. Grant Wehrli, a Naperville Republican, called on Cullerton to resign.
“If true, his actions were highly illegal and completely unbecoming of the office he holds,” Wehrli said in a statement. “Ethical behavior is not a partisan issue. Members of both parties should be denouncing this type of conduct. I ask all Illinois lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, to join me in calling for Senator Cullerton’s resignation.”
Rep. Mart Batinick, a Republican from Plainfield, had a different take.
“Politicians who have put personal gain over the welfare of the citizens of Illinois are a big reason why we are in the financial mess we are in. There has been too much self-dealing for too long. Time after time I blame one group — the voters,” Batinick said in an emailed statement.
“This is not the first time something like this is happened yet voters keep rewarding the same leadership election after election. Voters need to step up, pay attention, and vote differently. Or, they need to stop complaining about our high taxes and corrupt governance,” the statement continued.