Nearly two years since he was indicted and more than four months after his lawyer revealed he was negotiating a plea deal, Ald. Willie Cochran chose Wednesday to take his case to trial after all.
A seemingly surprised U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso, who had expected the 20th Ward alderman to enter a guilty plea, set a trial date of June 3.
Cochran’s lawyer, Christopher Grohman, said plea negotiations broke down after Cochran rejected an offer from federal prosecutors that would have allowed him to plead guilty to one count of fraud with a possibility of minimal to no prison time.
“He couldn’t stomach the idea of admitting to something he didn’t do,” Grohman told reporters outside court.
Federal prosecutors agreed to take the case to trial without further comment or explanation.
It bears noting that the timing of Cochran’s decision will allow him to stay on the job — and continue collecting his $116,000 aldermanic salary — through the end of his term in May. He is not seeking re-election.
Altogether, Cochran will have spent two and a half additional years on the city payroll after being accused by federal prosecutors in December 2016 of soliciting bribes from businessmen and looting an off-the-books charitable fund he controlled to pay for personal expenses such as his daughter’s college tuition.
That’s certainly his right. He’s innocent until proven guilty, and his lawyer says Cochran continues to believe he committed no crime.
Just the same, if it is proven at trial that Cochran is guilty of the crimes with which he is charged, one would hope the judge takes into account the considerable taxpayer benefit he has received in the intervening period.
In addition to his aldermanic salary, Cochran collects a $60,000 city pension for his previous work as a Chicago police officer, which has always raised the question of why he also needed to allegedly grift off his “20TH Ward Activities Fund”— created for the purpose of supporting his charitable efforts.
One possible explanation is contained in the charges against Cochran — he withdrew $25,000 from the charitable fund at ATMs near casinos where he gambled.
Grohman said Wednesday that Cochran does not deny using money from the charitable account for casino expenses or his daughter’s tuition.
But he argued Cochran deposited personal funds into the charitable account to “cover or almost cover” the personal expenses.
At trial, Cochran would be expected to offer a no harm/no foul defense: arguing he opened the fund with his own money and essentially repaid it as he went after making personal withdrawals.
“He never intended to defraud any of those constituents,” Grohman said.
As we’ve discussed previously, Cochran never publicly accounted for the monies collected by his 20thWard Activities Fund, a loophole in state campaign finance reporting laws that invites questionable fundraising.
So only federal authorities have access to records that would show how timely Cochran made those repayments — and whether they came before or after investigators started breathing down his neck.
We reported previously that Cochran also separately paid himself more than $115,000 from his campaign fund over a three-year span, most of which he failed to disclose until long after the fact. But Cochran was never charged in connection with those activities.
Grohman acknowledged Cochran is taking a “big risk” by going to trial at this point. Federal sentencing guidelines would allow for a prison sentence of more than five years if Cochran is found guilty on all counts, he said.
But he said Cochran’s “confidence level is high” that he will be acquitted.
The case against Cochran is indeed no slam dunk.
In addition to the possibly persuasive argument that he did no harm to his charitable fund, which conducted as promised the events for which funds were solicited, Grohman has also poked holes in the government’s bribery case.
He contends the bribery charges against Cochran rely on two “very weak” witnesses; one, he said, has offered contradictory accounts, and the other maintains he did not feel pressured by Cochran to make a campaign contribution. Neither alleged bribe-payer was charged.
The odds are still good that Cochran will yet become the 35th person who served as a Chicago alderman to be convicted of a crime since 1973.
He just bet at least five years of his life that he won’t.
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• Ald. Cochran charged with looting fund meant for kids, seniors