Former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton sentenced to one year in prison in federal embezzlement case

Prosecutors had asked the judge to give Cullerton up to 18 months in prison. The former senator’s defense attorney asked for probation and community service.

SHARE Former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton sentenced to one year in prison in federal embezzlement case
Former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton leaving the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in June after being sentenced to one year in prison in an embezzlement case.

Former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton was sentenced Tuesday to one year in prison in his embezzlement case.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

A federal judge told Thomas Cullerton that he didn’t “fit the profile of some of the public officials that, sadly, this court has had to deal with over the years.”

Rather, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman said Cullerton was a “terrific family man” who’d raised three Eagle Scouts, in addition to being a state senator.

But a prosecutor argued Tuesday that Cullerton thought his position in the Senate entitled him to a do-nothing job with the Teamsters labor union. So Gettleman went on to tell Cullerton that he “broke the trust of the people.” And then, the judge sentenced Cullerton to a year in prison in the $248,000 embezzlement case that ended Cullerton’s career in Springfield earlier this year.

“Every time you took that paycheck from the Teamsters without working for it, you knew that you were doing something wrong,” Gettleman told the Democrat from Villa Park.

Before he learned his fate, Cullerton spoke to the judge about his family life and “the amount of online hate speech comments” that attacked him and his wife after his August 2019 indictment. Cullerton’s attorney, Daniel Collins, mentioned death threats. 

Gettleman acknowledged the emotional and financial consequences already suffered by Cullerton, but he explained that “the reason people are angry” is because of a “disheartening” amount of public corruption seen by Chicago’s federal court.

Cullerton pleaded guilty to embezzlement back in March, admitting that he improperly took more than $248,000 from the Teamsters. Cullerton is a member of a family whose political fortunes in Chicago date back to just before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The case against Cullerton revolved around his job as an organizer for Teamsters Joint Council 25, which he landed after his former employer, Hostess Brands, shut down in 2012. His indictment came days after former Teamsters boss John T. Coli pleaded guilty in a separate extortion case involving $325,000 in cash payments Coli received from Cinespace Chicago Film Studios.

Coli agreed at the time to cooperate with federal prosecutors, despite having bragged years earlier that, “you can cut my fingers off, I wouldn’t talk.” He is set to be sentenced Oct. 26.

Coli told the feds that Cullerton was hired for his Teamsters job as a favor to a senator who has only been identified in court records as “Senator A.” Coli also said he arranged for Cullerton’s hiring but did not believe the job was legitimate, records show.

Cullerton was accused of collecting $188,320 in salary, bonuses and cellphone and vehicle allowances from the Teamsters between March 2013 and February 2016, as well as $64,068 in health and pension contributions, while doing little or no work for the labor union. He was also accused of collecting $21,678 in reimbursed medical claims.

Prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Cullerton to up to 18 months in prison, arguing that Cullerton “clearly realized that he would be able to get away with pocketing this money without doing any work simply because he was an elected official.”

Collins asked for probation and community service, telling the judge that Cullerton now does shift work at a warehouse as he tries to make ends meet and repay the Teamsters.

Cullerton on Tuesday apologized to the union. And he told the judge, “I’m not going to say I didn’t take advantage of the situation. I did.”

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