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Ex-Illinois state senator gets a year in prison for union embezzlement

Tom Cullerton pleaded guilty to embezzling from the Teamsters in March, two weeks after resigning his seat in the Illinois Legislature.

CHICAGO (CN) — A federal judge in Chicago sentenced former Illinois state Senator Tom Cullerton to a year and a day in prison on Tuesday for pinching almost $250,000 from the Teamsters Union over the course of three years.

The charges stem from Cullerton's employment with Chicago-area Teamsters Joint Council 25 between 2013 and 2016. Cullerton was once part of Teamsters Local 734, an affiliate of Joint Council 25 located in Chicago, prior to his election to the Illinois Senate in 2012. Cullerton lost his job as a driver for Hostess in late 2012, and became ineligible to benefit from Local 734's pension fund after taking his seat in the Legislature in early 2013.

According to U.S. Attorney John Lausch's office, it was then that the politically ambitious former Joint Council 25 president, John Coli Sr., hired Cullerton on as a union organizer.

Organizing is a full-time job, with important duties such as helping workers without representation to join the union and supporting picketing unionized workers during strikes. Accordingly, it's also a full-time salaried position with pension benefits. But Lausch's office said Cullerton did nothing to deserve those benefits. The prosecutor alleged that Coli, who pleaded guilty to his own corruption charges in 2019, brought Cullerton on as a favor in March 2013 with the understanding that the senator wouldn't be doing much actual work.

"Over the course of a three year period while employed as an organizer, Cullerton collected a salary, allowances, and bonuses, and the union made monthly pension and health and welfare benefit payments for the benefit of the defendant," attorney Amarjeet Bhachu with Lausch's office wrote in a sentencing memo earlier this month. "Cullerton and his family also made medical claims that were paid for... But Cullerton failed to do honest work for the pay he received. Indeed, he was a ghost payroller who invariably did little to nothing over this three year period."

Neither Teamsters Local 734 nor Joint Council 25 responded to requests for comment.

Cullerton initially pleaded not guilty to the more than 40 embezzlement, conspiracy and false statement charges he faced when the federal prosecutors indicted him in 2019, but then agreed to plead guilty to one count of embezzlement in a March plea deal after also resigning from the state Senate in February.

He is one of several Illinois politicians that have been caught up in sweeping anti-corruption investigations launched by the feds since before the pandemic. Those investigations have seen multiple other members of the Illinois Legislature - and three members of the Chicago City Council - facing federal criminal charges since 2019 on everything from embezzlement and bribery to extortion and conspiracy.

Given his guilty plea, Cullerton's lead attorney Daniel Collins of the law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman asked Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman for mercy earlier this month. In a June 7 filing, Collins urged the Bill Clinton appointee to sentence Cullerton to three years' probation and community service, with the promise that he would surrender most of his ill-gotten $250,000 in Teamster pay.

Collins painted Cullerton as a down-and-out working man who in 2012 was just looking for a way to keep food on the table.

"Tom went without any income from November 2012 to February 2013, when he received his first paycheck as a Senator. Although recently elected to the State Senate, Tom needed a second job to pay the mortgage on his family’s home, buy groceries, and otherwise support his family," Collins wrote.

The defense attorney added that Cullerton knew from the start that he was not fulfilling all the responsibilities expected of a union organizer, and said the former senator knows he made a lapse in moral judgment.

"He is truly embarrassed by how he treated his supervisors at the Teamsters, and understands that he owes them more than an apology. Tom is anxious to repay the Teamsters the salary and benefits that he received without earning it," Collins wrote.

Cullerton himself echoed this sentiment during his sentencing hearing on Tuesday.

"I’m not going to say I didn’t take advantage of the situation. I did,” Cullerton said in court while reading from a prepared statement.

But Gettleman wasn't moved. While saying it gave him "no pleasure" to take Cullerton away from his family, the judge opined that a message had to be sent to discourage the "disheartening" amount of corruption among Illinois politicians.

"You broke the trust of the people that elected you... there has to be a consequence to to that," Gettleman said, sentencing the former lawmaker to one year and one day in prison.

Cullerton is one of the last sires of a powerful political dynasty that has been involved in Illinois and Chicago government since the 1800s. With his sentencing and resignation from the the state Senate, no more Cullertons have any seats in either Springfield or Chicago. His cousin John Cullerton served as president of the Illinois Senate from 2009 to 2020, when he retired from that position.

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