By Jason Meisner
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, come three days after former longtime Teamsters boss John Coli Sr. pleaded guilty to extortion charges and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities.
The indictment, made public Friday morning, charges Cullerton with 39 counts of embezzlement and one count each of conspiracy and making false statements. He will be arraigned later in Chicago's federal court. Each of the charges carries up to five years in prison if convicted.
Cullerton, 49, of Villa Park, is a distant cousin of Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. He previously served as village president of Villa Park and was first elected to the state Senate in 2012.
His attorney, John Theis, said in an emailed statement Friday that "the allegations 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. "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."
The indictment alleges that from March 2013 to February 2016 Cullerton 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 was a member of Teamsters Local Union 734 before assuming his state Senate seat in January 2013.
That March, Cullerton was hired by Coli as an "organizer" for the union, according to the charges. While not naming Coli, the indictment 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 requested that he perform his job duties, Cullerton "routinely ignored their requests," the indictment said. Coli "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 total of $325,000 from Individual 1 -- previously identified by the Tribune as Cinespace Studio President Alex Pissios.
According to Coli's 26-page plea agreement, Pissios paid the bribes between 2014 and 2017 through a series of $25,000 quarterly payments that Coli 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.
Coli's plea agreement calls for a sentence of up to about three years in prison, but if he cooperates fully, prosecutors will recommend he be given about half that time.
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