As the fortunes of Chicago-area former Teamster leader John T. Coli Sr. continue to crumble, an overlapping story has emerged. On August 2, Illinois Democratic State Senator Tom Cullerton was charged in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois with 40 counts of embezzlement and one count of making a false statement following an indictment by a grand jury. For three years, Cullerton, while working as an organizer for International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 734, allegedly received nearly $275,000 in salary and benefits from the Chicago union for doing “little or no work.” Teamsters Joint Council 25, then headed by Coli, had approved the job assignment back in 2013. On August 16, Cullerton pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The indictment of Tom Cullerton (in photo) is an outgrowth of charges against John Coli Sr., who for 25 years was the dominant Teamster official in the Chicago area. Coli headed Local 727 and Joint Council 25; served as a trustee of Local 700; cultivated a close alliance with General President James P. Hoffa; and most fatefully, leaned hard on various business enterprises he wanted unionized. His extortion of $325,000 in cash payments from the head of a Chicago-based TV production company led to his indictment and resignation in July 2017, superseding indictment two months later, and guilty plea this July. The federal investigation, however, is continuing and in higher gear now that it is getting full cooperation from Coli. And it has resulted in prosecutions or subpoenas of Coli’s allies, one of them being Cullerton.
Tom Cullerton, now 49, a resident of Villa Park (DuPage County), Ill., long has doubled as a politician and a union man. A state senator since 2013, he represents the west suburban 23rd District of Illinois. Prior to taking office, he was a member of Teamsters Local 734, which represents bakery drivers in the Chicago area. After winning his current seat in a close election against Republican incumbent Carole Pankau in 2012, he was no longer eligible for union health and pension benefits. Therein lay the origins of his legal problems.
According to federal prosecutors, John T. Coli Sr., as president of Teamsters Joint Council 25, hired Cullerton as a full-time union organizer in March 2013, two months after the latter had taken office. Some might call it a coincidence, but earlier that month Coli had reached an agreement with the council that enabled Cullerton to collect health and pension benefits from Local 734. Council 25 would cover his salary, bonuses, car and telephone expenses through the three-year period of March 2013-February 2016. Unfortunately, this was a case of hardly working rather than hard at work. Charging documents allege that he “routinely ignored” efforts by his supervisors to persuade him to perform his duties. Cullerton reportedly used his compensation to pay for his mortgage, utilities, groceries and other personal expenses. In other words, this case has all the hallmarks of a union ghost job scheme.
Those perks added up. During his three years as a Teamster “organizer,” Cullerton obtained $188,320 in salary, bonuses, and cell phone and motor vehicle allowances; $64,068 in health and pension contributions; and $21,678 in reimbursed medical claims. That’s a grand total of almost $275,000. As for the medical claims, he allegedly submitted or caused to be submitted information to health care providers indicating he was a Local 734 “route salesman.” The plea agreement between the Justice Department and Coli announced on July 30 paved the way for the new charges. Coli had pleaded guilty to one count each of receiving a prohibited payment and filing a false tax return following a lengthy joint probe by the FBI, the IRS and the Department of Labor. Facing up to eight years in prison, his sentence could be reduced to 20 months if he helps prosecutors score convictions. That sealed the deal on the 41-count, August 2 indictment of Cullerton. The charges consist of 39 counts of embezzlement, one count of conspiracy to embezzle and one count of making false statements. A conviction on each count carries a prison sentence of up to five years.
Cullerton’s lawyer, John Theis, believes his client is nothing more than a fall guy. In an emailed statement, Theis wrote: “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. 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.” Two weeks later at his arraignment, Cullerton pleaded not guilty to all counts. He will have an uphill climb. Back in February, as part of the Coli investigation, federal investigators had subpoenaed the Illinois Senate for records related to Cullerton. If Coli’s testimony is anywhere near convincing, it’s hard to see how Cullerton will beat this rap.