Updated at 11:30 a.m.
Embattled state Sen. Tom Cullerton pleaded not guilty to federal embezzlement charges in a Chicago courtroom Friday. Prosecutors have indicted him on 41 counts relating to an alleged no-work payroll scheme involving the Teamsters union.
The Villa Park Democrat was charged earlier this month with embezzlement and conspiracy for an alleged scam that had him on the Teamsters Joint Council 25 payroll, even though he did little or no actual work.
The indictment came down just days after former Teamsters president John Coli Sr. pleaded guilty to federal charges related to shaking down the head of the Chicago film studio Cinespace in exchange for peace with the labor union. Prosecutors have asked the judge that Coli’s sentencing be delayed while they determine how much he would cooperate with them on other investigations.
Cullerton is free on $10,000 bond, and is not allowed to leave the state of Illinois.
“Today is another step in seeking justice for Mr. Cullerton. He will continue to fight these untrue allegations in court until his name is cleared,” a Cullerton spokeswoman wrote in a statement after Friday’s hearing.
According to the charges against Cullerton, the senator received more than $274,000 in payments and benefits for being a purported union organizer while Coli was president of the Teamsters.
Cullerton’s indictment has been met with a muted response from his colleagues in the Illinois statehouse. Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider has called for his resignation, but few elected officials have spoken out about Cullerton’s refusal to step down.
Cullerton 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.
He’s a distant cousin of Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. After the indictment came down, the powerful Senate president removed Tom Cullerton from his chairmanship of the Senate Labor Committee and assigned him instead to be chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.The Senate president has not been implicated in any wrongdoing.
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.Teamsters Joint Council 25 is a labor umbrella group comprising 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 his role as an organizer, 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 Coli’s plea hearing in front of Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer earlier this month, a federal prosecutor read quotes from Coli to back up their evidence against him of shaking down the film studio where TV shows like Empire and Chicago Fire have been filmed. 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.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.