A federal investigation that resulted in an embezzlement and conspiracy indictment announced Aug. 2 against state Sen. Thomas Cullerton hasn’t cost him the support of Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, a distant cousin.
In his first public comments since the charges were announced, John Cullerton told the Chicago Sun-Times the Villa Park Democrat remains “a valued member of the caucus and a friend of mine” — and declined to say whether federal prosecutors have contacted him.
Nor has the investigation turned off the campaign-money spigot for the now-indicted senator.
Accused of taking $188,000 in salary and other pay plus additional benefits from the Teamsters union despite “doing little or no work,” Thomas Cullerton has raised about $30,000 in campaign contributions since the first news report, in April, that he was under investigation, campaign-finance records show. Dozens of people and political groups have made contributions since WBEZ Chicago broke the news the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago had subpoenaed the Illinois Senate for Thomas Cullerton’s legislative attendance and travel records, among other documents.
“What country do we live in?” Al Ronan, a former state legislator and longtime lobbyist who gave $500 on June 28, said when asked about his contribution. “In America, until you’re convicted, you’re innocent. ... Why waste my time with stupid questions? Have a good day.”
Former state Sen. James DeLeo, a Northwest Side Democrat, gave $500 on the same day in June.
“I don’t know him,” said DeLeo, who also gave Thomas Cullerton $500 in 2015.
So why the latest campaign contribution? “Somebody must have asked me ... one of the lobbyists or someone. ... Anybody that asks me, I send in a check because I’m a dummy.”
Labor groups also have made recent campaign contributions. Among them: a political action committee for the union that represents state troopers, which gave Thomas Cullerton $500 on June 28.
Thomas Cullerton — who had gotten an in-kind contribution of $13,800 in March, from the Senate Democratic Victory Fund, for polling — is drawing from his campaign fund to pay John Theis, a Chicago criminal defense lawyer. Thomas Cullerton paid Theis — who’s married to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis — $2,500 in April, according to campaign-finance disclosures the senator filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, oversees the political committee that gave his cousin the March contribution and has been key to getting his fellow Democrat elected and keeping him in office in historically Republican DuPage County. The Senate Democratic fund has given nearly $2.6 million to Thomas Cullerton’s campaigns since 2012, according to records filed with the elections board, covering expenses including salaries of campaign staff members, polling and political ads.
The Senate president said Thomas Cullerton had been a top recipient of campaign help in his first legislative election, but that other candidates got more support from the Senate president’s fund for last year’s election.
“I raise money ... and try to get as many Democrats” elected “as possible,” John Cullerton said of his relative, who is his third cousin, once removed. “I supported him just like I supported a whole bunch of people.”
“We’re very disappointed that a member of our caucus is charged like this,” John Cullerton said, adding the allegations were “very concerning.”
Asked whether he has been contacted or interviewed by federal agents or prosecutors investigating his cousin in the widening corruption probe that ensnared Chicago’s former top Teamsters union official, John Coli Sr., who is now cooperating with prosecutors, John Cullerton said: “I just don’t want to answer that question ... I don’t think it’d be good to talk about the case at all because it’s pending. I just don’t want to go there.
“Tom’s got a lawyer,” the Senate president said. “I don’t want to affect” things “in any way ... It leads down a slippery slope ... He’s got his own strategy.”
John Cullerton also defended his decision to appoint Thomas Cullerton chairman of the Senate’s Labor Committee even though Thomas Cullerton had been a Teamsters member, and the committee considers legislation that can affect that union.
Thomas Cullerton had the seniority to be a committee chairman and a labor background, and “he asked for it,” John Cullerton said. “There were no red flags.”
After the indictment, the Senate president took away that committee chairmanship from Thomas Cullerton but left him on the panel and made him chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Federal prosecutors have accused Thomas Cullerton of being paid by Teamsters Joint Council 25 in some cases when he actually was “performing his duties” as a senator in Springfield.
His lawyer has said the senator did nothing wrong and will fight the charges.