South Side Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) was overcome with emotion on the day Sandi Jackson resigned her City Council seat under the cloud of a federal investigation that eventually would send her and her husband, Jesse Jackson Jr., to prison.
“She was one of my favorite colleagues. It makes me heavy-hearted because of the troubles her family is having,” Cochran said on Jan. 11, 2013.
Now, it’s Cochran who might be in trouble.
The retired Chicago Police officer and community organizer is under federal investigation in connection with his use of political campaign funds, sources have told the Chicago Sun-Times.
As Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown first reported, records show Cochran paid himself more than $115,000 from his campaign fund over a three-year span. In some cases, he reported the payments more than two years after he should have, then amended his campaign finance disclosure reports after the fact to correct the omissions.
For residents of the impoverished, crime-ridden South Side ward that includes parts of Woodlawn, Washington Park, Englewood, Grand Crossing and Back of the Yards, it was déjà vu — and not in a good way.
Cochran’s predecessor, Arenda Troutman, went to prison for shaking down developers. Former Ald. Cliff Kelley (20th), now a popular radio talk show host, was one of five aldermen caught up in a bribery web spun by con man-turned-undercover mole Michael Raymond.
Rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Cochran’s failed aldermanic challenger in 2011, said the federal investigation of Cochran’s campaign finances should be the final straw for 20th Ward residents.
“Why is it that this community where the University of Chicago is nestled can’t seem to have an alderman who stays out of jail?” Smith said.
“The same people and institutions who supported Cochran supported Troutman. I pray that the people rise up and pick their own leaders instead of allowing the system that’s been misleading them to continue to pick puppets for them.”
With his police background, Cochran was supposed to play a leading role in chairing public hearings that culminated in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s police accountability overhaul. Instead, he was conspicuously absent from most of those hearings and a no-show on the day the plan was approved.
During the Cubs’ 1-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, Cochran took advantage of the team’s offer to buy playoff tickets at face value by taking his son to Wrigley Field — but Cochran fell asleep.
Contacted this week, Cochran said: “I’ve been told to just say, ‘No comment’ at this point.”
That hasn’t stopped him from making a series of Facebook posts defending himself.
The latest characterized payments he received from his campaign fund as “legal,” but acknowledged that “errors were made” when he failed to report the “end user” of the funds he withdrew.
“The reports will be amended to include the end users instead of just my name. End users such as election day workers, months of paid phone bankers and field operations, over four elections. This of course is supported with documentation,” Cochran wrote. “I apologize for the book keeping error. They will be corrected.”
Cochran, 64, is the youngest of 13 children born to a pair of Mississippi sharecroppers.
He played college football at Eastern Illinois and went to training camp with the New York Jets, but was cut. He returned to Chicago to become a police officer.
As an alderman, Cochran has hosted a bi-monthly cable access show while alternating between reliable mayoral ally backed by the pro-Emanuel super-PAC and outspoken critic on subjects of crime and race.
Despite backlash from the “Black Lives Matter” movement, he joined Ald. Edward Burke (14th) in sponsoring a stalled “Blue Lives Matter” ordinance that would establish increased penalties for crimes against police officers.
He also joined Burke in championing an ordinance that would establish a Mental Health Critical Response Unit within the Police Department to train and support officers responding to emergencies involving people with mental illness.
“You walk a tightrope,” as a former cop, said Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), Cochran’s seatmate in the City Council chambers.
Despite a heavy loss of student population, Cochran opposed Emanuel’s plan to close 13 schools in the 20th Ward.
When homicides spiked in 2012, he demanded that Emanuel and then-Police Supt. Garry McCarthy restore disbanded specialized units and stop using overtime as a substitute for more police officers. That was four years before the mayor’s promised police hiring surge.
Cochran also joined in the call for McCarthy’s resignation weeks before the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video forced the mayor’s hand.
After six-month-old Jonylah Watkins was gunned down in Woodlawn in an apparent gang retaliation shooting that injured her father, Cochran called on gang leaders to essentially deliver an unprecedented message: It’s okay to kill each other, but don’t kill kids or other bystanders.
“Innocent victims are unacceptable. They are out-of-bounds. They’re off-limits,” he said then.
The same cannot be said for a City Council that has sent at least 30 of its present or former members to prison since 1970.
Brookins is one of the lucky ones. He managed to get re-elected and avoid indictment, even after his former chief of staff pleaded guilty in December to taking a $7,500 cash bribe from an undercover FBI informant in exchange for the alderman’s blessing for a liquor license in his ward.
“We’re all targets . . . once we raise our hands to be sworn in as aldermen because of a poor reputation, some of it justifiable, with the number of people who have gone to prison,” Brookins said.
“That said, my thoughts and prayers are with Willie and his family. I know exactly what he’s going through. . . . When all of these rumors start flying and circulating, it makes it hard for you to keep your head up and do your job. I just hope he gets through this OK.”