In his final days as Illinois Senate president, John Cullerton transferred $92,000 from a political account he controlled to the campaign funds of two Senate colleagues targeted by federal prosecutors: his distant cousin Thomas Cullerton and Martin Sandoval.
Thomas Cullerton — who got $32,000 in January — had pleaded “not guilty” to federal charges accusing him of taking $274,000 in salary and benefits for a no-show Teamsters job.
Sandoval — who got $60,000 — had just resigned his Senate seat and days later pleaded guilty to taking $250,000 in bribes and filing a false income-tax return.
Within days after they got the money, records show, both men made sizable payments to their defense lawyers.
Though using campaign contributions to defend themselves against criminal charges is legal, Aaron McKean, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, a national elections watchdog group, says: “It is unseemly to see campaign funds be used for legal defense, especially when the situation is egregious. Campaign donors can rightly look at this and say that’s not how they wanted their contributions to be used.”
The cash came from the Senate Democratic Victory Fund, which John Cullerton established and controlled, according to state records, to “elect Democratic candidates to the Illinois State Senate.” Such funds typically are set up by party leaders to finance favored candidates.
Thomas Cullerton and Sandoval weren’t candidates at the time they received the money in January. Thomas Cullerton isn’t up for re-election until 2022. Sandoval already had resigned effective Jan. 1.
In a report the Senate Democratic fund filed April 15 with the Illinois State Board of Elections, each of the payments was labeled a “contributions refund.”
The former Senate president says he had no idea what his colleagues intended to do with the money, only that they requested he return their previous contributions to the Victory Fund.
“I did not know what they intended to do with it,” says John Cullerton, a partner in the Chicago law firm Thompson Coburn LLP. “They didn’t discuss that with me. They decided what to do with the funds.”
Like other Democratic state senators, Sandoval and Thomas Cullerton had given money over the years from their campaign funds to the Illinois Senate Democratic fund.
By the end of 2019, Sandoval and Thomas Cullerton’s campaign funds were low on cash in part because they had used them to pay their criminal defense lawyers. In the last three months of the year, Sandoval spent $90,000 on lawyers. Thomas Cullerton spent $25,000 on lawyers, leaving him with a balance of $240 on Dec. 31.
The Senate Democratic fund sent $60,000 to Sandoval’s campaign committee on Jan. 14 and $32,000 to Thomas Cullerton’s committee on Jan. 17.
John Cullerton’s last day in office was Jan. 20.
Using the money from the Senate Democratic fund, Thomas Cullerton paid $25,000 Jan. 21 to his lawyer Dan Collins, records show.
Sandoval used his campaign fund to pay $50,000 Feb. 19 to the Chicago law firm of Freeborn & Peters and $25,000 Feb. 24 to Cherry, Frazier & Sabin, a Springfield law firm.
Sandoval didn’t respond to questions, and his attorney Dylan Smith wouldn’t comment.
Thomas Cullerton’s spokeswoman Lissa Druss says the refund “complies with state campaign-finance law.”
Illinois’ campaign-finance law lists the kinds of expenditures that are prohibited. Paying legal fees to defend yourself against corruption charges isn’t on that list.
“It’s not explicitly prohibited,” says Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Illinois politicians used $5.3 million in campaign money last year to pay legal bills, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis in February found, including Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), who spent $800,000 on legal bills following his arrest on extortion charges.
John Cullerton and Thomas Cullerton are part of a family political dynasty whose roots go back to Chicago’s earliest days. One of their forebears was elected an alderman in 1871. Family members held a seat in the Chicago City Council for more than 140 years.
The former Senate president says he authorized other refunds to two other Senate members in recent years — Daniel Biss and Ram Villivalam.
Biss says it helped fund his unsuccessful 2018 run for governor.
“I gave a contribution of $100,000 to the Senate Democrats very late in the 2016 election cycle, not anticipating that I would be running for governor in the subsequent election,” Biss says. “I asked that the Senate Democrats return the money, which they did. The money was spent in support of my candidacy for governor.”
Villivalam says he requested his $10,000 contribution to the Senate Democrats be returned in October “to assist my official office’s constituent operations, to support candidates who share my policy platform and to plan towards my reelection.”
John Cullerton refunded the money to Villivalam from his own campaign committee, records show.
In March, Villivalam won a full term to a second office — 39th ward Democratic committeeperson.
The only other refunds John Cullerton made to lawmakers went to Sandoval and Thomas Cullerton. Records show Sandoval had given $81,700 to the Victory fund over the past 10 years. Sandoval got back $60,000 because that’s what he asked for, according to John Cullerton.
Thomas Cullerton gave $32,000 to the Senate Democratic fund during his seven years in office, records show. John Cullerton refunded all of it. The party fund had spent a total of about $2 million helping Thomas Cullerton win elections in his hotly contested DuPage County district.
In 2018 and 2019, campaign-finance records show, 37 state senators or candidates contributed more than $4.5 million to the Senate Democratic Victory Fund. Asked why he didn’t make refunds to other senators as he was winding down the committee, John Cullerton says he acted only in response to requests.
“I’m unaware of other senators who have asked for returns of contributions,” John Cullerton says.
He said in a report on the fund to the state on April 15 that he had shut down the committee, transferring the remaining balance of $7,796.13 to a committee formed by state Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, his successor as Senate president.
John Cullerton previously stood by his cousin and Sandoval as they were targeted by federal prosecutors.
Last August, a few days after Thomas Cullerton was indicted on charges accusing him of embezzling from the Teamsters, John Cullerton removed him as chairman of the Illinois Senate Labor Committee but shifted him to chairman of the Illinois Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, allowing him to keep the extra pay that goes to a committee chairman.
“When I switched his committees, Thomas Cullerton was a senator in good standing and presumed innocent,” says John Cullerton.
A week after a Sept. 24 raid by federal agents of Sandoval’s Springfield office, Gov. J.B. Pritzker called on John Cullerton to strip Sandoval of his transportation committee chairmanship if Sandoval refused to step down.
“Sandoval retained his chairmanship because at the time he had not been charged,” Cullerton says.
On Oct.11, Sandoval stepped down as chairman. Sandoval was charged in late January. By then, he had resigned from the Senate. He pleaded guilty Jan. 28 to taking $250,000 in bribes and has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators.
“I had the discretion to give them the money back,” John Cullerton says. “At the time the funds were returned, Thomas Cullerton had pleaded not guilty. He’s entitled to the presumption of innocence. Sandoval had not been charged.”
Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo are reporters for the Better Government Association.