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Tom Cullen, longtime head of Madigan’s political operation, testified for the feds

When federal prosecutors dragged former House Speaker Michael Madigan into the AT&T collusion case this month, they put an insider with an insider’s view of Madigan’s once-vaunted statewide Democratic organization and his secret dealings in the Capitol at the heart of the scandal.

That insider is Tom Cullen.

Now, the Tribune has learned, Cullen, a lobbyist who for years served as a political chief in the Madigan administration, has testified before a federal grand jury looking into broad aspects of Madigan’s political world, which prosecutors say included criminal activity aimed at securing personal financial gains. rewards for Madigan and his associates.

Any details Cullen offered in his testimony about Madigan and his former associates remain classified, but the gaps he could fill in as part of Madigan’s known inner circle are numerous.

Tribune first discovered earlier this year that Cullen and his lobbying firm were at the center of an alleged scheme by AT&T Illinois to pay thousands of dollars to a former member of Madigan’s House leadership team in exchange for the speaker’s help on legislation the Springfield-based phone giant wanted passed.

Earlier this month, Cullen was called Tribune and other news outlets, such as Mediator 4, in the indictment against Madigan and his longtime confidant Michael McClain, which adds to the AT&T allegations.

Cullen has not been charged in the case, even though his firm allegedly served as an intermediary for the secret payments.

His attorney, Thomas Anthony Durkin, declined to comment on his client’s position on Friday.

To be sure, Cullen’s legal situation is starkly different from other Madigan loyalists caught up in the expansive investigation.

McClain, 74, of Quincy, one of Madigan’s longest and closest confidants, rebuffed several attempts to get him to step down both before and after he was indicted in 2020 on separate charges that he orchestrated a scheme by utility giant Commonwealth Edison to buy the speaker’s influence. The trial in this case is scheduled for March.

Another longtime member of Madigan’s brain trust, former chief of staff Tim Mapes, was granted immunity from prosecution but was ultimately charged with perjury after prosecutors said he lied during a March 31, 2021 grand jury appearance when asked about Madigan’s relationship with McClain.

Madigan, 80, of Chicago, has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing. In a written statement after the indictment, he said prosecutors “attempted to criminalize” legitimate political activities such as lobbying and labor advocacy — an argument that is sure to come up if the case goes to trial.

Madigan’s lead attorney, Sheldon Zenner, declined to comment Friday on Cullen’s role.

For decades, Tom Cullen was one of the key engineers in the Madigan machine, occupying a position of high trust in a small group of Madigan confidantes whose members are so closely guarded, according to one longtime political insider, that only “the people in the circle know who the people in the circle are.” “.

Cullen held the critical position of director of development for Madigan’s House, the speaker’s political arm of government operations. In this role, Cullen became instrumental in selecting and recruiting legislative candidates and determining their path to victory.

When the speaker’s daughter Lisa Madigan ran for attorney general, Cullen was among a handful of people, including McClain, who met frequently to help guide her successful statewide race.

Democrats and Republicans alike recognized Cullen’s political acumen — even as they disagreed with him. During his years at the Capitol, he was known for telling politicians and lobbyists ahead of time how he planned to defeat them on a legislative issue, rather than backstabbing them, as many in the cut-throat world of Springfield did.

“He always stabbed you in the front with a smile,” explained one longtime Democratic strategist with years of experience in government.

Unlike some, Cullen was friendly with his colleagues across the aisle, earning a reputation as “a decent guy in a dirty business,” as one veteran Republican put it. But there was no question that he was loyal to Madigan, displaying a special political allegiance from the 1990s on the speaker’s staff and throughout his successful career as a lobbyist.

A key political figure for Madigan when he lost the speakership in a nationwide Republican wave in 1994, Cullen became one of the staffers most focused on taking back the House of Representatives.

Rep. Lee Daniels, a Republican, served just one term as speaker, the only two years Madigan was interrupted as speaker in the 36 years he led the Legislature.

After Madigan regained the speakership, Cullen eventually became a contract lobbyist with an enviable book of clients and remained a full-time Capitol staffer.

“He’s earned Madigan’s respect through his past work,” said one statehouse Republican source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There are only a handful of people who have Madigan’s respect. Tom Cullen was one of them.’

Cullen represented a group of high-ranking political figures who were done with Madigan’s government operations but remained in the speaker’s obsession with remaining in charge of the House.

“When you’re in that rarefied air where you’ve become one of the speaker’s trusted political confidants, it doesn’t matter how many clients you have and who those clients are, because your first loyalty is to the speaker,” the longtime Democratic strategist explained. . “But if you were a speaker, you wouldn’t have those customers.”

Like others in Madigan’s circle, Cullen has been tapped throughout his lobbying career to work on campaigns to help the speaker stay in power.

Cullen also found himself a key political figure in the Madigan headlines over the years.

For example, in 2014, Cullen, a Metra lobbyist, appeared in a legislative inspector general’s report on whether Madigan exerted undue influence in trying to secure a promotion for a Metra employee who served as a precinct captain in Madigan’s 13th District political operations. .

Cullen also came after one of the most impressive chapters of Madigan’s response to the #MeToo scandals among his wayward staff.

When campaign staffer Alaina Hampton called out longtime Madigan senior lieutenant Kevin Quinn over his alleged sexual harassment in 2018, Madigan ousted Quinn from state government and the speaker’s political operations.

But Cullen later emerged among five current and former friendly utility lobbyists who signed contracts and sent checks to Quinn at the request of McClain, who arranged the payments to help the fired aide get a softer financial landing, according to emails and bank records. Tribune received in 2019.

In one of those emails, the Tribune reported, McClain warned Quinn of the delicate political consequences if the payments made by Cullen and others became widely known.

“These people are sticking their necks out, knowing full well that if it goes public before you’re acquitted, they’re going to get hit full hard by the MeToo movement.” So please respect your privacy,” McClain wrote.

It soon emerged that the payments were just part of a much larger federal criminal investigation into ComEd’s alleged efforts to influence Madigan’s official actions.

Cullen’s list of high-octane clients ranged from healthcare and pharmaceuticals to gambling and utilities. He once represented ComEd, but eventually left years ago due to political intrigue, and, perhaps coincidentally, has spent the past few years as a lobbyist for Ameren, the downstate utility he still calls a client.

Instead, the client that ultimately landed Cullen in trouble was AT&T Illinois, a subsidiary of the national phone giant, which, like ComEd, hired a stable of lobbyists and consultants tied to Madigan to push the legislation in Springfield.

According to a statement of facts acknowledged by AT&T Illinois in a deferred prosecution agreement, Madigan’s office in 2015. blocked a controversial bill the phone company had pushed to end expensive landline service for its nearly 1.2 million customers.

After that defeat, the chief circulated a “lessons learned” memo that contained one section titled “Speaker Madigan.” The memo claimed that AT&T was not as “helpful” as ComEd when “inquiries” were made from the speaker’s camp, according to the statement.

Two years later, AT&T found a way to help, the statement said. In February 2017, the company launched a scheme to transfer money to Democratic Rep. Edward Acevedo, who worked as an aide to House Majority Leader Madigan and opened his own lobbying business, according to the statement, which identified Acevedo only as “FR-1.”

In an email exchange in March of that year, AT&T’s director of legislative affairs in Illinois asked the two company executives if they were “100%” sure they would get a loan “from the government” if payments were made through an intermediary rather than directly to Acevedo.

“I hope that as long as we explain the approach to McClain and (the associate) gets the money, then the ultimate goal will be achieved,” one executive wrote back, according to the statement.

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That’s when Cullen allegedly intervened. On April 5, 2017, AT&T’s director of legislative affairs sent another email instructing an employee to increase the payments the company was making to Cullen & Associates, identified in the filing only as “Company 4.”

According to the statement, the email said the funds would allow Cullen to “bring additional assets” that would “make a difference to the views of the House Democratic leadership on AT&T’s development strategies” for the landline legislation.

Later that month, according to AT&T’s court admissions, Cullen attended a meeting with AT&T employees and Acevedo to discuss the cover-up payments: “to prepare a report on the political dynamics of the Latino caucuses of the General Assembly and the Chicago City Council.”

Acevedo initially refused, saying the payouts were too low. But he agreed to the deal after McClain stepped in and said the amount was “sufficient.”

Between June 2017 and January 2018, AT&T made nine monthly payments of $10,000 to Cullen’s firm, with $2,500 of each payment going to Acevedo, for a total of $22,500. According to the filing in the federal case, the report was never made and Acevedo did no other work on behalf of AT&T.

Meanwhile, after a long fight, the landline bill passed in the final hours of the 2017 spring legislative session — with Madigan’s direct help, according to legislative filings and a statement of facts agreed to by AT&T.

Acevedo, 59, has not been charged in connection with the alleged AT&T scheme. Earlier this year, he was sentenced to a year in federal prison on tax charges related to the ComEd investigation. He is serving time in a maximum security federal prison in North Carolina and is due to be released on December 5. His lawyer declined to comment.


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