Ex-state senator who did prison time over job that required ‘little to no work’ finds work on the outside — as a state lobbyist

Ex-state Sen. Thomas Cullerton pleaded guilty last summer to embezzling funds from a labor union and was sentenced to more than a year in prison. But he was released early — and 11 days later, he registered as a lobbyist with a public relations and government affairs firm.

SHARE Ex-state senator who did prison time over job that required ‘little to no work’ finds work on the outside — as a state lobbyist
Former Illinois state Sen. Thomas Cullerton walks with family and Lissa Druss (right) out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after he was sentenced to one year in prison in his embezzlement case last June. Druss recently hired Cullerton, who’s now out of prison and is a lobbyist. 

Former Illinois state Sen. Thomas Cullerton walks with family and Lissa Druss (right) out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after he was sentenced to one year in prison in his embezzlement case last June. Druss recently hired Cullerton, who’s now out of prison and is a lobbyist.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Eleven days after serving a federal prison term for corruption, a former Illinois legislator from Chicago’s western suburbs registered as a state government lobbyist last month, according to federal and state records.

Ex-state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, a Democrat from Villa Park, pleaded guilty last summer in federal court to embezzling funds from a labor union and was sentenced to more than a year in prison.

But he enjoyed early release after about seven months behind bars on April 14, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Now, state records show Cullerton registered on April 25 as a lobbyist with Strategia Consulting of Itasca, a public relations and government affairs firm whose current client list includes two western suburban municipalities.

On Stategia’s website, Cullerton is described as the firm’s chief public affairs officer.

Cullerton did not reply to messages from WBEZ. But Lissa Druss, Strategia’s founder and chief executive, said, “People make mistakes. Tom is taking this opportunity to pay back his restitution, but more importantly, our firm is getting involved in a [prisoner] reentry program, and Tom will be volunteering some of his time to help returning citizens.”

Druss added, “Tom is a good person. He was a talented and successful legislator. He’s been a longtime friend. He’s a friend to many.”

Druss declined to respond when asked which clients Cullerton was working for in Springfield.

Then state Sen. Thomas Cullerton walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in 2019.

Then state Sen. Thomas Cullerton walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

State records show Stragetia’s state government clients in the current legislative session are the city of Oakbrook Terrace, the village of Itasca, Americans for Fair Energy Prices, the Justice Grown cannabis dispensaries and SoundThinking — the recently rebranded company behind gunshot-detection software used by the Chicago Police Department.

Cullerton, 53, is a distant cousin of former Illinois Senate President John Cullerton. Tom Cullerton was mayor of Villa Park before becoming the first Democratic state senator from DuPage County in 2013.

He helped lead the legislative response in 2018 to recurring Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the state-run veterans home in downstate Quincy.

But in 2019, Tom Cullerton was charged in a 41-count federal embezzlement and conspiracy indictment related to an alleged scam where he received payments from a Chicago labor union for little to no work.

He was accused of receiving more than $274,000 in payments and benefits from Teamsters Joint Council 25 for being a purported union organizer.

The indictment alleged Tom Cullerton routinely did not show up for work with the union after he landed the lucrative gig from former Teamsters Joint Council 25 President John Coli Sr., who pleaded guilty to federal extortion and tax fraud charges in 2019.

Former longtime Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. leaving the Dirksen Federal Building in 2017.

Former longtime Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. leaving the Dirksen Federal Building in 2017.

Max Herman/Sun-Times file

Despite initially denying the charges — and remaining in the Legislature for years after his indictment — Tom Cullerton eventually resigned from the Illinois Senate in February 2022, and he was sentenced last June to a year and a day in prison.

In a press release at the time, the office of then-U.S. Atty. John Lausch said the state senator was on the payroll of the Teamster Joint Council 25 “as a purported union organizer” from 2013 until February 2016, taking a salary, monthly car and telephone allowances, bonuses and benefits — even though he did “little to no work.”

He admitted the money he embezzled was used to pay personal expenses, including mortgage, utilities and groceries.

Federal prisons officials said Tom Cullerton began serving his sentence on Aug. 31 and was let go from a lock-up in Kentucky a month ago under provisions of a law that allows early release under certain circumstances.

Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jon Seidel contributed to this story.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.

The Latest
The Bears defense seems far ahead of the offense — and with good reason. The Bears are installing new coordinator Shane Waldron’s offensive scheme with a rookie quarterback under center.
The county is offering $3.6 million in grants to license holders. Applications are open through June 14.
The police department’s troubled response to the protests and unrest in the summer of 2020 looms over preparations for the convention in August.
Playwright intrigued by the dynamics and the day-to-day of certain jobs — in this case, sex work.
Johnson’s Communications Director Ronnie Reese is under fire for a 2010 tweet that said, “I brake for gay pride, reluctantly,” meanwhile Ald. Debra Silverstein called a recent Facebook post by Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchz “an antisemitic dog whistle.”