My Suburban Life

‘You broke the trust of the people’: Former state Sen. Cullerton gets 12-month prison sentence

Former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton was sentenced Tuesday to 12 months and one day in federal prison on his conviction for embezzling close to a quarter of a million dollars from the Teamsters union.

“You broke the trust of the people who elected you,” U.S. District Court Judge Robert Gettleman said before pronouncing the sentence.

“I consider a breach of public trust to be as serious as it gets” short of violence, Gettleman added.

According to the judge, Cullerton, 52, likely will spend about 10½ months in prison.

Indicted in 2019 on 39 counts of embezzlement and other charges, the Villa Park Democrat resigned his office in February. On March 8, he pleaded guilty to one count of embezzling the assets of a labor organization.

Federal prosecutors requested Cullerton receive a 12- to 18-month sentence and pay $248,828 in restitution.

Prosecutors said Cullerton accepted pay and health benefits from a job where he “did little or no work.” Weeks after he was sworn in as an Illinois state senator, Cullerton was hired by the Teamsters as a union organizer, a job for which he was expected to work 40 hours per week.

Over three years as a union organizer, Cullerton collected a salary, bonuses and allowances while the union made monthly health and welfare benefit payments for him.

“Cullerton failed to do honest work for the pay he received,” according to prosecutors’ sentencing memorandum, which referred to him as a “ghost payroller” who was “never available,” according to one supervisor.

Prosecutors said Cullerton “didn’t bother to show up” for union events to the point that immediate supervisors eventually gave up trying to get him to work. Despite this, Cullerton was not fired, prosecutors said.

Cullerton realized he’d be able to get away with the scheme because he was a state senator, federal officials said. Fired from his do-nothing job, Cullerton was hired for another do-nothing job with a video gaming company, according to prosecutors. Hired as a salesman in 2017, Cullerton received a $1,000 per week salary (which later doubled to $2,000 per week) while all other salespeople were paid on commission.

“Cullerton brought in little if any business” for the company, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors argued that as an elected official, Cullerton should be held to a higher ethical standard.

“When a public official elects to brazenly break the law and take advantage of their position as a public official to do so, the sentence imposed must promote respect for the law and send the clear message that public officials must obey the law just like all others,” prosecutors said, adding that a sentence must serve as a deterrent to other Illinois officials tempted to engage in similar criminal behavior.

Defense attorneys argued in their response that Cullerton should be sentenced to three years probation, ordered to perform community service and pay restitution.

“Tom is a good and decent man who made a terrible mistake,” according to the defense memorandum. “He should not have accepted the Teamsters salary and benefits without doing enough to earn them. Tom will live the rest of his life with deep regret and shame, but he is determined to make it right and continue in some way to help his community.”

Defense lawyers said Cullerton regrets his criminal conduct, accepts responsibility for his actions and is committed to paying restitution.

“Tom understands that he deserves much of the public scorn that he has received, but is nonetheless committed to making things right with the Teamsters and working hard for his family and community,” his attorneys wrote, adding that Cullerton will forever bear the stigma, embarrassment and financial costs related to his felony conviction.

An Evanston native, Cullerton served three years in the U.S. Army receiving an honorable discharge. During his 20s, he worked as an actor/comedian and in retail, his attorneys said.

Elected a Villa Park trustee in 2005, he became village president in 2009 and was elected to the general assembly in 2012. His former 23rd District includes all or parts of Villa Park, Bloomingdale, Glendale Heights, Carol Stream, Hanover Park, Itasca, Bartlett. Addison, Roselle and West Chicago.

Currently, Cullerton works multiple five-hour shifts at a warehouse where his wife also works on evenings and weekends.

According to his attorney, Cullerton found it difficult to dedicate his time to the senate, his Teamster job and his family and knew in 2013 he should have resigned his position with the Teamsters.

“Tom again made admittedly sporadic efforts (in 2014) to perform work for the Teamsters, but fully acknowledges that his efforts were nowhere near enough to meet the requirements of the job,” according to the defense. “And in 2015, Tom did not perform any work for the Teamsters. Tom fully understands that his continued acceptance of salary and benefits during this almost three-year time period (March 2013 to February 2016) was inexcusable.”