In his final days as Illinois Senate president, John Cullerton transferred $92,000 from a political account he controlled to the campaign funds of two senate colleagues under federal investigation for corruption: his distant cousin Thomas Cullerton and Martin Sandoval.

Thomas Cullerton, who got $32,000, has pleaded not guilty to federal charges accusing him of taking a salary and benefits for a no-show Teamsters job. Sandoval received $60,000 after he resigned his Senate seat and just days before he pleaded guilty to taking bribes.

Within days of receiving the money in January, records show, both men made sizable payments to their defense attorneys.

Both Sandoval and Tom Cullerton are recent examples of public figures using a controversial yet legal practice that allows politicians to spend campaign contributions defending themselves against charges involving their public office.

“It is unseemly to see campaign funds be used for legal defense, especially when the situation is egregious,” said Aaron McKean, a lawyer for the national elections watchdog group, the Campaign Legal Center. “Campaign donors can rightly look at this and say that’s not how they wanted their contributions to be used.”

The cash came from the Senate Democratic Victory Fund, controlled by John Cullerton and established, according to state records, to “elect Democratic candidates to the Illinois State Senate.” Such funds are typically set up by party leaders to finance favored candidates.

But neither Tom Cullerton nor Sandoval were candidates for the 2020 elections at the time they received the refunds. Tom Cullerton is not up for re-election until 2022, and Sandoval resigned his office effective Jan. 1.

In a report the Senate Democratic fund filed April 15 with the Illinois State Board of Elections, each of the payments was labeled a “contributions refund.”

In an email response to questions from the Better Government Association, the former Senate president said he transferred the money after both men asked that previous contributions they made to the Senate Democratic fund be returned.

“I did not know what they intended to do with it; they didn’t discuss that with me,” John Cullerton, a partner in Chicago law offices Thompson Coburn LLP, said in the emailed response. “They decided what to do with the funds.”

Martin Sandoval walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Jan. 28 after his arraignment. (Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times)

By the time John Cullerton paid out the money, both Sandoval and Tom Cullerton’s campaign funds had been drained, state records show, in part because they had been using them to pay their criminal defense attorneys. In the last three months of 2019, Sandoval spent $90,000 on lawyers and Tom Cullerton spent $25,000 on lawyers, leaving him with just $240.

The Senate Democratic fund made the payments to Sandoval’s campaign committee on Jan. 14 and Tom Cullerton’s committee on Jan. 17. John Cullerton’s last day in office as Senate President was Jan. 20.

The next day, Tom Cullerton paid $25,000 to his defense lawyer, Dan Collins, of Drinker, Biddle & Reath. The firm’s name has since changed.

Sandoval paid two sets of lawyers in February, with $50,000 going to the Chicago law firm of Freeborn & Peters and $25,000 to Cherry, Frazier & Sabin, a Springfield law firm.

Reached by phone, Sandoval’s attorney, Dylan Smith, of Freeborn & Peters declined to comment. Sandoval did not respond to a detailed list of emailed questions.

Tom Cullerton’s spokeswoman Lissa Druss said the refund “complies with state campaign finance law.”

Experts in campaign finance told the BGA state and federal candidates generally have free reign over how to spend funds from donors. The one main exception is that campaign funds cannot cover personal expenses.

On the federal level, public officials and candidates have long been allowed to use campaign funds for criminal defense, backed by Federal Elections Commission advisory opinions that take the position legal expenses are not personal if they relate to politicians’ jobs or campaigns.

By contrast, the FEC has ruled lawyers’ fees for drunk driving or divorce proceedings are purely personal.

“The law is pretty permissive in terms of the use of campaign funds to pay lawyers,” said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation for Common Cause, a non-partisan public interest group.

The same holds in Illinois, where campaign finance law specifically lists the kinds of expenditures that are prohibited. Defense of corruption charges is not on the list.

“It’s not explicitly prohibited,” said Matt Dietrich, the Illinois State Board of Elections’ spokesman. He said the Illinois General Assembly would have to change the law to bar the practice.

Experts could not cite any examples of states that have explicitly outlawed the practice.

“It’s overwhelmingly common that states don’t restrict the use of campaign funds for criminal defense. It’s normal,” McKean said.

In 2015, The New York Times revealed how $7 million in New York political contributions were used to pay legal bills during the previous decade, even as some state lawmakers attempted to ban the practice. The reform effort died in a legislative committee without ever coming to a vote.

In Illinois, politicians used $5.3 million in campaign funds last year to pay their legal bills, according to an analysis by the Chicago Sun-Times. Among the top spenders was Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, 14th, who spent $800,000 on legal bills in 2019 following his arrest on extortion charges.

Both John and Thomas Cullerton are part of the Cullerton family political dynasty whose roots go back to the original settlers of Chicago and who take pride in being the longest-serving family in Chicago politics. One of their forebears was elected alderman in 1871; family members have been on the City Council for more than 140 years.

Former president Cullerton cited two other examples of refunds he authorized for two members of the Senate in recent years, but neither were to pay for legal fees, according to interviews.

The two politicians — Daniel Biss and Ram Villivalam — said they needed the refunds to help finance their respective campaigns.

Biss said he needed the refund to support his 2018 run for governor, which was unsuccessful.

“I gave a contribution of $100,000 to the Senate Democrats very late in the 2016 election cycle, not anticipating that I would be running for governor in the subsequent election,” he said in an email. “I asked that the Senate Democrats return the money, which they did. The money was spent in support of my candidacy for governor.”

Freshman state Sen. Ram Villivalam said he requested his $10,000 donation to the Senate Democratic fund be returned in October 2019 “to assist my official office’s constituent operations, to support candidates who share my policy platform, and to plan towards my reelection.”

John Cullerton refunded the money from his own campaign committee, Villivalam campaign records show.

This March, Villivalam campaigned for, and won, a full term to another office — 39th ward Democratic committeeperson. He continues to serve as state senator.

The only other recent refunds to lawmakers went to Sandoval and Tom Cullerton. Records show Sandoval contributed $81,700 over the last decade to the Senate Democratic fund. Sandoval received a $60,000 refund, because, according to John Cullerton, that’s all he requested.

State Sen. Thomas E. Cullerton walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in August after pleading not guilty to federal charges he had been a ghost payroller for the Teamsters union. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times)

Tom Cullerton donated $32,000 to the Senate Democratic fund during his seven years in office, records show. John Cullerton refunded all of it, even though the party fund spent roughly $2 million over the years helping him win elections in his hotly contested DuPage County district, a BGA analysis found.

In 2018 and 2019, state campaign finance records show 37 state senators or candidates contributed more than $4.5 million to the Senate Democratic fund. When asked why he didn’t distribute refunds to other senators as he was winding down the committee, John Cullerton said that he only returned money to contributors who requested it.

“I’m unaware of other senators who have asked for returns of contributions,” John Cullerton said.

When John Cullerton filed the fund’s report on April 15, he also disclosed he had closed out the committee, after transferring the balance, $7,796.13, to a committee formed by his successor as Senate president, Don Harmon of Oak Park.

The financial help was not of out character for John Cullerton, who consistently cited the principle of presumption of innocence while resisting pressure to remove Tom Cullerton or Sandoval from their committee chairmanships and later deciding to refund their campaign donations.

It was first reported in April 2019 by WBEZ that federal prosecutors were investigating Tom Cullerton’s financial relationship with the Teamsters. But it wasn’t until August — a few days after Tom Cullerton was formally indicted on charges he embezzled $274,000 in salary and benefits from the Teamsters — that he was removed as chairman of the Illinois Senate Labor Committee. He was then shifted to chairman of the Illinois Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, allowing him to keep his extra pay as a committee chairman.

“When I switched his committees, Tom Cullerton was a senator in good standing and presumed innocent. I made him the chairman of the Veterans’ Committee because he’s a vet,” said John Cullerton. Tom Cullerton continues to serve as a senator, awaiting trial.

A week after the Sept. 24 federal raid of Sandoval’s Springfield office, Gov. J.B. Pritzker called on John Cullerton to strip Sandoval of his transportation committee chairmanship if Sandoval refused to step down.

“Sandoval retained his chairmanship because at the time he had not been charged,” Cullerton told the BGA.

On Oct.11, Sandoval stepped down as chairman. The formal charges against Sandoval were filed in late January, but by that time, Sandoval had resigned from the Senate. Sandoval pleaded guilty on Jan. 28 to taking $250,000 in bribes, and has agreed to cooperate with the continuing federal probe.

John Cullerton defended the refunds, and reiterated he was unaware the funds would be used to pay criminal defense attorneys’ legal fees.

“I had the discretion to give them the money back,” he said. “At the time the funds were returned, Tom Cullerton had pleaded not guilty. He’s entitled to the presumption of innocence. Sandoval had not been charged.”

Sandy Bergo is a special contributor for Illinois Answers.

Chuck Neubauer is a special contributor for Illinois Answers.