State Sen. Thomas Cullerton to plead guilty in federal embezzlement case

The 2019 indictment against Cullerton came days after former Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli pleaded guilty in an extortion case. The charges that followed against Cullerton revolved around Cullerton’s role as an organizer for Teamsters Joint Council 25.

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Illinois State Sen. Thomas E. Cullerton walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in August 2019.

Illinois state Sen. Thomas E. Cullerton

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

State Sen. Thomas Cullerton, a member of an entrenched Illinois political dynasty who held onto his office while facing criminal charges since 2019, intends to plead guilty in federal court, his attorney revealed Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman scheduled a March 8 hearing for Cullerton’s plea at the request of Cullerton’s defense attorney. A Cullerton spokeswoman later told the Chicago Sun-Times she would have no comment until Cullerton’s case is fully resolved.

Cullerton also resigned Wednesday from the Senate. His resignation was first reported by the politics blog Capitol Fax.

The news comes a little less than two months before the Villa Park Democrat was finally due to stand trial on 39 counts of embezzlement and other charges filed soon after the feds made known their latest campaign against public corruption.

That campaign has targeted several public officials in the years since. Other state lawmakers to face federal charges — and lose office — since Cullerton’s August 2019 indictment include Luis Arroyo, Terry Link and the late Martin Sandoval.

Another member of one of Chicago’s storied political families, former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, was convicted in federal court just last week on charges he cheated on his taxes and lied to regulators. He is a grandson and nephew of Chicago’s two longest-serving mayors.

Cullerton had originally been set to go to trial in July 2020, but the event was scuttled by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and was recently reset for mid-April.

The charges against Cullerton came just days after former Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli pleaded guilty in an extortion case revolving around $325,000 in cash payments he received from Cinespace Chicago Film Studios between 2014 and 2017. Coli also agreed at the time to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

Coli has not been sentenced.

The indictment that followed against Cullerton revolved around Cullerton’s role as an organizer for Teamsters Joint Council 25. He landed that job after his former employer, Hostess Brands, shut down in 2012. Coli told prosecutors he arranged for Cullerton’s hiring as an organizer “but did not believe the employment was legitimate,” according to court filings.

Cullerton is 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 also allegedly collected $21,678 in reimbursed medical claims.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu wrote in a November court filing that Cullerton “was a virtual no-show at work over the course of three years” and “was invariably unavailable” to his supervisors. Bhachu described Cullerton as “a ghost worker” who “effectively was on a permanent vacation.”

“Tellingly, one of the union supervisors did not even realize that [Cullerton] had remained on the payroll over the course of three years,” Bhachu wrote.

But Cullerton was also fired from that job early in 2016, according to defense attorney Daniel Collins. And in his own court filing last October, Collins argued that prosecutors offered “no clarity” on the difference “between when an under-performing employee should be fired or indicted.”

Cullerton, a cousin of former state Senate President John Cullerton, is a member of a political family whose fortunes here stretch back just before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, with the election of saloon keeper Edward “Foxy” Cullerton to the City Council.

A Cullerton would then serve on the council for most of the next century-and-a-half, in what would become known as the “Cullerton seat.”

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