Ald. Willie Cochran sat calmly at his desk on the floor of the City Council as word began to spread Wednesday.
His colleagues had just been singing the praises of the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. But then they learned that Cochran had become the latest among them to be targeted by federal prosecutors a few blocks away. A 15-count indictment accusing Cochran of fraud, extortion and federal program bribery had just gone public.
And Cochran just sat there, as if it were just another day. That is, until he decided to duck out of the council chambers as reporters gave chase, claiming he hadn’t seen the indictment. Hours later, Cochran told the Chicago Sun-Times by text message he has no intention of stepping down from his council seat because, “you resign when you are guilty.”
“Indictments are not guilty pleas,” Cochran, 64, wrote. “I’m confident these allegations will be resolved.”
The law requires a municipal elected official to step down only after a felony conviction, a Chicago Board of Elections spokesman confirmed.
The 22-page indictment handed down Tuesday accuses Cochran of looting a 20th Ward fund meant to help children and senior citizens, using $5,000 to pay his daughter’s college tuition and withdrawing $25,000 from ATMs near his preferred casinos. The former Chicago Police officer is also accused of accepting bribes from businessmen who needed favors from him.
The most serious charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. Thomas Anthony Durkin, Cochran’s defense attorney, said the alderman will plead not guilty at an arraignment set for Dec. 23.
“I know the alderman to have a tremendous reputation,” Durkin said. “He is a leader in the community.”
Durkin also said he had not yet read Cochran’s indictment. But he promised to “fight the case vigorously” and predicted “there will be multiple legal and factual arguments,” citing this year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that tossed the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. That case revolved around the definition of an “official act.”
U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said in a statement the FBI investigation began with information from former Chicago Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, who persuaded the feds to seize and secure his records before he closed his office late last year.
The indictment came as a vindication for Khan who was handpicked for the job by aldermen only to have his hands tied behind his back by Council-imposed restrictions on the what and whom he could investigate.
Aldermen ridiculed Khan, and he was ultimately forced out after his four-year term expired.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown first broke the story about Cochran’s alleged campaign fund irregularities, reporting earlier this year that Cochran paid himself more than $115,000 from his campaign fund over a three-year span, most of it disclosed belatedly.
Cochran faces 11 counts of wire fraud, two counts of federal program bribery and two counts of extortion. He is accused of taking a $1,500 bribe from an attorney seeking a letter from him as part of a redevelopment project for foreclosed housing. The feds also claim Cochran took a $3,000 bribe from another man who wanted to sell his liquor store in the ward but needed a packaged goods license.
The feds say that the 20th Ward Activities Fund that Cochran is charged with looting was promoted to contributors as a way to pay for a summer back-to-school picnic, a Valentine Day’s event for seniors, and school supplies and warm jackets for kids. He used money from the fund not only for tuition but also to buy personal items for his home, the feds say. Further, they suggest he used it to gamble.
If Cochran is convicted, he will join a list of 35 current and former Chicago aldermen convicted of crimes since 1973. Cochran’s predecessor, Arenda Troutman, went to prison for shaking down developers. Former Ald. Cliff Kelley (20th) was also one of five aldermen caught up in a bribery web spun by con-man-turned-undercover-mole Michael Raymond.
Just last month, the feds indicted former Ald. Edward Vrdolyak.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel urged reporters Wednesday not to kick the council when it’s down or paint aldermen with the same broad brush, saying, “I know that it’s easy to just kick the council and then, make everybody who ever worked in it carry a badge of dishonor. [But] I wouldn’t do that.”
Still, never before in recent memory has an alderman simply sat through a City Council meeting on the day he was indicted. The World Series trophy and members of the Ricketts family were in the house as aldermen honored the Cubs for their first World Series win in 108 years.
Between the back-slapping speeches, aldermen checked their phones and tablets as Cochran sat stoically, pretty much alone. At one point, Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) went over to Cochran, leaned over in front of him and appeared to show Cochran his iPad.
Nobody could see what they were looking at.
Cochran left the chambers after the Cubs celebration. Later, aldermen were reluctant to talk openly about the Cochran indictment. But some were privately incredulous that Cochran had the gall to show up to the meeting.
Later, Cochran sent the Sun-Times a text message responding to them.
“I was elected to be there and represent the ward as I have been,” Cochran wrote. “I didn’t hesitate to go to Council. I’m surprised [anyone] would think I shouldn’t be there.”