Former Sen. Tom Cullerton pleads guilty to embezzlement
Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, is pictured in an Illinois Senate committee. He pleaded guilty Tuesday to a federal charge of embezzlement. (Credit: Lee Milner, Illinois Times)
Plea deal calls for nearly $250k restitution, possible prison time
By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Former state Sen. Tom Cullerton pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of embezzlement and could face more than a year in federal prison.
During a plea hearing in federal court in Chicago, Cullerton admitted that he received pay and benefits from the Teamsters Joint Council 25 during 2015 while doing little or no work for the union. In addition to his salary, prosecutors alleged, Cullerton also received bonuses and health care benefits.
Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat, was indicted in 2019 on 40 counts of embezzlement – one for each biweekly paycheck he received from January 2015 through January 2016, a period of time when he also served in the Illinois Senate.
The indictment was one element of a sprawling federal investigation into public corruption led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois. Other lawmakers indicted in the sweep included former Sen. Martin Sandoval, who is now deceased, former Rep. Luis Arroyo and, most recently, former House Speaker Michael Madigan. All three are Chicago Democrats.
According to court documents, Cullerton, a one-time chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, had been a member of the Teamsters Union Local 734 when he drove a truck for Hostess Brands until November 2012 when the company filed for bankruptcy. That was the same year he was elected to the state Senate.
In March 2013, according to the indictment, John Coli, president of the Teamsters Joint Council 25, the local union’s parent organization, hired Cullerton as a union organizer. He received a salary, a car and telephone allowances and bonuses from the council, which also continued contributing to his health care and retirement benefits through the local union.
On July 30, 2019, two days before Cullerton was indicted, Coli pleaded guilty to other, unrelated federal charges and agreed to cooperate with other investigations.
The indictment also alleged that Cullerton “repeatedly failed to respond to efforts by his supervisors at Teamsters Joint Council 25 to contact him and routinely ignored their requests that he perform the job functions of an organizer, as was required of other organizers employed by Teamsters Joint Council 25.”
After his indictment, Cullerton was removed as chairman of the Labor Committee, but he continued to serve in the Senate and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. His case was delayed for more than two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic which interrupted many federal court proceedings.
In October 2021, Cullerton’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the charges , but a judge denied that motion in December. Then last month, Cullerton resigned his Senate seat and his lawyer announced that he would change his plea.
The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. But according to a plea agreement, prosecutors said that based on his lack of any previous criminal history, sentencing guidelines would call for 12-18 months imprisonment, in addition to any supervised release, fine and restitution the court might impose.
As part of the plea agreement, Cullerton agreed to pay restitution of $248,828. That includes $247,179.37 to the Teamsters Local Union 734’s Health and Welfare fund, plus $1,648.63 for the paycheck he received on Jan. 15, 2015.
The agreement also calls on Cullerton to pay $25,000 of that amount within the next 30 days, in exchange for which prosecutors agreed not to seek forfeiture of his Villa Park residence.
Formal sentencing has been set for June 21.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.