Illinois state Sen. Tom Cullerton pleaded not guilty to 40 counts of embezzlement charges Friday, denying allegations that he took a salary and benefits from a labor union without doing any actual work.
"Today is another step in seeking justice for Mr. Cullerton," his spokeswoman Lissa Druss said in a statement. "He will continue to fight these untrue allegations in court until his name is cleared."
Cullerton, 49, was indicted on Aug. 2 on "one count of conspiracy to embezzle from a labor union and employee benefit plans, 39 counts of embezzlement from a labor union and one count of making false statements in a health care matter," the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Illinois said in a statement on the charges.
Cullerton, a Democrat, has represented the west suburban 23rd District - which includes parts of Villa Park, Glendale Heights, Bloomingdale and more - since 2013. Prosecutors say prior to taking that office, he was a member of Teamsters Local Union 734, but was no longer eligible for the union's health and pension funds after he won his state senate seat in 2012.
According to the indictment, the president of Teamsters Joint Council 25 hired Cullerton as a union organizer in March 2013, two months after he took office. That purported employment allowed Cullerton to receive benefits from Local 734's health and pension funds due to an agreement reached that same month with Joint Council 25.
Prosecutors allege Teamsters Joint Council 25 then paid Cullerton a salary, monthly car and telephone allowance and multiple bonuses for the next three years, from March 2013 to February 2016, even though he "did little or no work" for the union. Cullerton ignored requests from Joint Council 25 supervisors to perform his job duties, prosecutors say, and used the payments he received to pay personal expenses like his mortgage, utilities and groceries.
The indictment alleges Cullerton "fraudulently obtained and misappropriated for his own benefit" approximately $188,320 in salary, allowances, bonuses and other benefits, as well as about $64,068 in health and welfare plan and pension plan contributions from Teamsters Joint Council 25, plus approximately $21,678 in reimbursed medical claims from Teamsters Local Union 734's health and welfare fund.
Cullerton's attorney John Theis said in a statement that the allegations were "simply not true" and he would be "defending the charges in court."
"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 statement reads.
"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."
Federal investigators subpoenaed the Illinois Senate in February for records related to Cullerton in an investigation that led to the indictment of former Teamsters President John Coli, the Chicago Tribune reported in April.
Coli pleaded guilty on Tuesday to accepting $325,000 in unlawful cash payments from a Chicago business and failing to report the payments on his federal tax returns, the U.S. attorney's office said in a statement.
The indictment against Cullerton can be read in full below.