Updated 5 p.m.
A Democratic state senator from DuPage County was named Friday in a 41-count federal embezzlement and conspiracy indictment related to an alleged scam where he received payments from a Chicago labor union for little to no work.
A federal grand jury charged state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, D-Villa Park, in the alleged scheme, where Cullerton is accused of receiving more than $274,000 in payments and benefits from Teamsters Joint Council 25 for being a purported union organizer.
The indictment alleged Cullerton routinely did not show up for work with the union after he landed the lucrative gig from former Teamsters Joint Council 25 President John Coli Sr., who this week pleaded guilty to federal extortion and tax fraud charges.
A federal judge agreed to put off sentencing for Coli after he pledged his cooperation in additional cases.
Cullerton, who was elected in 2012 and helped lead the legislative response last year to recurring Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the state-run veterans home in downstate Quincy, denied the charges Friday through his attorney, John Theis.
“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,” Theis said in a statement. “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,” Theis said.
This week, Coli pleaded guilty to shaking down the Chicago film studio Cinespace, a one-time state grant recipient where a series of network television programs are filmed, including NBC’s Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. The government accused Coli of threatening work stoppages and labor unrest at the studio — which employs Teamster members unless Cinespace paid him off.
The indictment alleged that when Cullerton won his state Senate seat in November 2012, he relinquished his full-time job, meaning he no longer was an eligible participant in Teamster Local 734’s health and pension fund. In March, Coli authorized his hiring by the Teamsters, a gig he held until 2016, the indictment alleged.
Earlier this week, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker called Coli a “bad apple” after his guilty plea. On Friday, the governor was more guarded with his language when asked about the development involving Cullerton.
“This news that I just heard is extraordinarily frustrating and disappointing,” the governor told reporters. “I don’t have all the details of this yet, but I can say this, that our elected officials should be held to a very high ethical standard, and of course they should be following the law. We’ll have to wait to get more details of what occurred here.”
Cullerton, a distant cousin of Democratic Senate President John Cullerton, is the chairman of the Senate Labor Committee at the Illinois statehouse. He had disclosed in his state economic interest statements that he had received income as an “organizer” for Teamsters Joint Council 25.
The Senate president has not been implicated in any wrongdoing.
“This is clearly part of an ongoing investigation,” said John Patterson, a spokesman for the Senate president. “The Senate president reminds everyone we have a system of justice that presumes everyone innocent until proven otherwise.”
Patterson sidestepped questions about whether Cullerton would strip Sen. Tom Cullerton of his chairmanship of the Senate Labor Committee or whether he believed Tom Cullerton should resign from the Senate.
Likewise, a spokeswoman for Tom Cullerton said she could not answer whether he intended to step down as a result of Friday’s indictment.
In April, WBEZ first reported federal investigators subpoenaed the Illinois Senate for Cullerton’s personnel file as well as records regarding his legislative attendance; reimbursements for travel, lodging, meals, cell phone and vehicle allowances.
The labor umbrella group comprises 26 Teamsters locals and more than 100,000 members in Illinois and Northwest Indiana, including 4,600 who work for Illinois state government.
Annual spending reports the union filed with the U.S. Department of Labor for calendar years 2013, 2014 and 2015 showed Teamsters Joint Council 25 paid Cullerton $182,800 for that role, nearly doubling the senator’s cumulative pay from the state during that period, records show.
Teamsters Joint Council 25 has come under scrutiny after a sprawling criminal investigation yielded a 13-count extortion and tax fraud indictment in 2017 against its politically connected former president, John Coli Sr., who headed the organization from 2002 to 2017.
During Tuesday’s hearing in front of Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, a federal prosecutor read quotes from Coli to back up their evidence against him. Coli admitted in court to saying, “I will f***ing have a picket line up here and everything will stop.”
He also said: “You can’t have a f***ing rat in a wood pile. You can’t have a whistleblower here,” according to prosecutors.
State campaign records show Teamsters Joint Council 25 and other Teamsters-affiliated groups donated at least $95,000 to Cullerton between 2012 and 2018. Joint Council 25 hosted a fundraiser for the senator in December 2017 that it said raised more than $70,000 for Cullerton, according to its website.
After a WBEZ investigation into Legionnaires’ at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy launched in late 2017, Cullerton was instrumental in helping push through a series of legislative responses to how the public health crisis was managed by former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration.
Cullerton, a veteran of the U.S. Army and a frequent critic of Rauner, co-chaired legislative hearings on the Quincy outbreaks, which were linked to 14 residents who later died from Legionnaires’ or ensuing complications, and the sickening of dozens more residents and staff between 2015 and 2018.
He also backed legislation to require 24-hour public notice of infectious disease outbreaks like Legionnaires’ at state veterans’ homes, and an increase in potential damage awards to $2 million for victims’ families who have sued the state over the fatal outbreaks.