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Sen. Thomas Cullerton pleads not guilty

Cullerton is accused of being a ghost pay-roller for the Teamsters.

State Sen. Thomas E. Cullerton walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in August after pleading not guilty to federal charges he had been a ghost payroller for the Teamsters union,
State Sen. Thomas E. Cullerton, D-Villa Park, walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after pleading not guilty to federal charges he had been a ghost pay-roller for the Teamsters union.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

State Senator Tom Cullerton had little to say Friday when he finally faced ghost-payrolling accusations at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

In fact, he let others do the talking that mattered. First, his attorney told a federal judge that Cullerton would plead not guilty to charges he had embezzled from the Teamsters. Then, a spokeswoman released a statement that took his denials further.

“Today is another step in seeking justice for Mr. Cullerton,” spokeswoman Lissa Druss said. “He will continue to fight these untrue allegations in court until his name is cleared.”

Finally, Cullerton walked grim-faced out of the courthouse in Chicago’s Loop where he had been arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Cox. He ignored reporters and photographers, and he climbed into a gray sedan waiting on South Dearborn.

A prosecutor had earlier said Cullerton’s next stop would be the FBI field office on Roosevelt.

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

A grand jury indicted him on one count of conspiracy to embezzle from a labor union, one count of lying about a health care matter, and 39 counts of embezzlement from a labor union.

A member of one of Chicago’s oldest political dynasties, Cullerton is now the latest local politician swept up in what appear to be multiple federal investigations targeting classic examples of Chicago corruption.

Since the start of the year, Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) found himself under indictment for racketeering. Former Ald. Daniel Solis has been exposed as a government mole who began wearing a wire after the feds built a case against him. Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) is the subject of another grand jury investigation. And investigators also appear to be circling allies of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

But Cullerton’s indictment landed Aug. 1, two days after former Teamsters boss John T. Coli formally agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Coli struck a deal in which he also pleaded guilty in an extortion case that revolved around $325,000 in cash payments he received from Cinespace Chicago Film Studios.

Immediately after Cullerton’s indictment, defense lawyer John Theis began to deny the allegations against the Villa Park Democrat.

“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,” Theis said in a statement earlier this month. “These allegations are simply not true, and we will be defending the charges in court.”

Still, the indictment has already cost Cullerton his position as chairman of the Illinois Senate’s Labor Committee. He will instead lead the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee.

That decision was made by Cullerton’s cousin, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton.