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State Sen. Thomas Cullerton charged with receiving money from Teamsters while doing little to no work

Cullerton, 49, of Villa Park, faces 41 counts in a federal indictment alleging he illegally got about $188,000 in salary and other pay, and $64,000 in health and pension contributions.

Indicted state Sen. Thomas Cullerton.
State Sen. Thomas Cullerton
File photo | Sun-Times Media

Organizers with Teamsters Joint Council 25 are tasked with protecting middle-class union jobs.

They’re supposed to recruit new members and support picketing and strikes.

State Sen. Thomas E. Cullerton should have been well aware of those duties — for that was his side job for which he was compensated handsomely: $188,320 in salary and other pay, and $64,068 in health and pension contributions, from the time he was hired in 2013 until he left in 2016, records show.

He even got bonuses every December.

But rather than toil for the joint council – a powerful labor consortium of two-dozen Teamsters chapters in the Chicago region and more than 100,000 members — Cullerton was essentially a ghost payroller, according to criminal charges announced Friday against Cullerton in the latest shoe to drop in an ongoing corruption case.

And this “conspiracy” went on with the knowledge and consent of the former head of Joint Council 25, disgraced Teamsters boss John Coli Sr., according to Cullerton’s indictment, which was made public the same week Coli pleaded guilty to a scheme in which he was shaking down Cinespace Chicago Film Studios in exchange for labor peace.

Federal prosecutors said in other court papers that Coli has agreed to cooperate with them — which could mean less prison time for him. And that “cooperation played a part in the Cullerton indictment,” according to a source with knowledge of the investigation.

Neither the U.S. attorney’s office nor the FBI is talking publicly about any of this.

Cullerton — a Villa Park Democrat who is cousins with state Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago — could not be reached for comment.

But his attorney, John Theis, released a statement that said: “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. 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. These allegations are simply not true, and we will be defending the charges in court.”

The charges mostly related to embezzlement, with multiple counts that each carry a potential prison term of five years. Cullerton is one of at least seven state legislators charged with crimes over the past decade.

John Cullerton said in a statement Friday: “This is clearly part of an ongoing investigation. The Senate reminds everyone we have a system of justice that presumes everyone innocent until proven otherwise.”

A spokesman for John Cullerton said that, as far as he knows, the Senate president has not been contacted by federal authorities. John Cullerton would not talk to a reporter.

The indictment hits one of the most entrenched dynasties in Illinois politics, a family whose political fortunes in the city stretch back before the Great Chicago Fire.

Thomas Cullerton is a scion of the dynasty that gave Chicago legendary ward heeler P.J. “Parky” Cullerton and the famed “Cullerton seat” in the City Council.

He is a descendent of Edward Cullerton, one of Chicago’s original settlers. The family’s political activism began just before the Chicago Fire of 1871 with the election of saloon keeper Edward “Foxy” Cullerton and has continued almost uninterrupted ever since.

According to the indictment, Coli, identified as Individual A in the court record, hired Thomas Cullerton “in or around March 2013” as an organizer. Cullerton appeared to need the work, with the indictment noting that shortly after he was elected to the Illinois Senate he was an employee of Teamsters Local Union 734 but was fired from his job.

The new job allowed him to keep adding pension credits, and get a salary and benefits.

The feds allege Coli knew that Cullerton ”was doing little or no work” for the Teamsters.

Cullerton was paid even when he “attended sessions of the Illinois State Senate” and “was otherwise performing his duties as a Senator in Springfield, Illinois,” according to the indictment.

It’s unclear if and how the charges will immediately affect his role as an elected official. Cullerton’s district covers part of DuPage County. His legislative base salary is just over $69,000.

Cullerton’s indictment notes an administrative employee at the joint council complained that Cullerton didn’t show up for work, but Coli ignored it.

One of Coli’s former top aides and confidantes, Becky Strzechowski, was also aware of those complaints, a second source familiar with the investigation said. She has not been accused of any crimes and has left the Teamsters.

Why Coli hired Cullerton wasn’t laid out in court records, but the source said it appeared to be a “favor,” though to whom isn’t clear.

Former longtime Chicago Teamsters union boss John T. Coli Sr.’s guilty plea last summer to extorting $325,000 from Cinespace meant that Alexander Pissios wouldn’t have to testify as the star prosecution witness at his trial.
Former longtime Chicago Teamsters union boss John T. Coli Sr. leaves court earlier this week after pleading guilty to taking part in a scheme to shake down a Chicago film studio
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Cullerton also helmed a state Senate committee that dealt with labor issues of importance to the Teamsters.

Having a friendly chairman “helps with roll calls and votes,” the source said.

Coli could not be reached for comment.

Cullerton was cut loose from his job at the joint council in 2016.

It’s unclear why, but the source suggested Coli may have thought he was under scrutiny by federal agents at that time and let Cullerton go as a defensive move. “I believe John already knew” he had trouble “and was unloading the guy,” the source said.

Organizer jobs are paid in part by fees assessed to Chicago-area Teamsters locals, which represent everyone from truck drivers and pharmacists to cops and parking lot attendants — in other words, the people Cullerton was hired to help.