'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 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.

Referencing letters of support from friends and family, Gettleman commended Cullerton for his devotion to his family, his volunteer work and for representing his district in the Illinois General Assembly. But Gettleman added that except for violence, he considers “a breach of public trust to be as serious as it gets.”

“When you were elected, you took an oath to uphold the laws,” the judge said. “You knew you were doing something wrong every time you took a paycheck you didn't earn.”

Cullerton, 52, will likely spend about 10½ months in prison, according to Gettleman, who also ordered him to pay $248,828 in restitution. He must report to federal prison on Sept. 13. It is not known where Cullerton will serve his sentence.

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.

“Tom understands what he did was wrong,” said defense attorney Dan Collins, acknowledging his client “did not do anywhere near enough” as a Teamsters union organizer. He took the job in early 2013, weeks after he was sworn in as an Illinois state senator.

Prosecutors say Cullerton was expected to work 40 hours per week but “did little or no work.” From 2013 to 2016, Cullerton collected from the Teamsters a salary, bonuses and allowances along with monthly health and welfare benefit payments, prosecutors said.

“Cullerton failed to do honest work for the pay he received,” wrote prosecutors in their sentencing memorandum. The filing refers to Cullerton as a “ghost pay-roller” who was “never available,” according to one supervisor, and “didn't bother to show up” for union events.

Fired from his union job in 2016, Cullerton was hired as a salesman for a video gambling company where he was paid $1,000 per week, and later $2,000 per week, while other salespeople were paid on commission, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu, who described Cullerton's hiring as “an unusual arrangement that made no financial sense.”

Cullerton's crime was “not a momentary lapse of judgment but a conscious and deliberate decision” to cheat the union, Bhachu said.

A public official who violates his oath of office and takes advantage of his position must be held accountable, he said, adding, “You can't steal that type of money and earn probation.”

People are “sick and tired of public officials abusing their authority. ... They're tired of corruption,” said Bhachu, who argued a prison term was necessary to deter other Illinois officials who might be tempted to break the law.

Describing his client as a “good and decent man who made a terrible mistake and committed a crime,” Collins referenced letters from friends and family attesting to Cullerton's character.

“Public shame and humiliation will follow him the rest of his life,” Collins said.

Collins requested a sentence of probation, community service and restitution for Cullerton, who he described as a loving husband and father who began volunteering for his community long before he thought of running for office.

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

Elected a Villa Park village 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.

Cullerton now works multiple 5-hour shifts at a warehouse where his wife also works on evenings and weekends.

An emotional Cullerton thanked his wife, family and friends who have supported him over the last few years, saying, “It's 100% my fault they had to deal with this.” He apologized to union supervisors and members.

“I'm not going to say I didn't take advantage of the Teamsters. I did,” said Cullerton, who has repaid $26,000 to the union.

“I'm looking forward to paying my debt and rebuilding a legacy my family can be proud of.”

As the hearing concluded, Gettleman referenced Illinois' legacy of public corruption, much of which has played out in Chicago's federal courthouse.

“The reason people are angry is because we've had so much public corruption,” he said. “It's disheartening to say the least.”

Illinois lawmaker charged with bribery resigns

Trial date set for Cullerton

Villa Park senator Cullerton resigns, plans to change plea in embezzlement case

What happened to ethics reform in Illinois government? Why watchdogs have some hope.

Former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton walks with family and supporters out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago after he was sentenced Tuesday to one year and one day in prison in his embezzlement case. Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton walks with family and supporters out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago after he was sentenced Tuesday to one year and one day in prison in his embezzlement case. Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.