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Ald. Willie Cochran pleads guilty to wire fraud in corruption case

Willie Cochran

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on Thursday where he is expected to plead guilty. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Willie Cochran had changed his mind about pleading guilty once before.

And for a moment, it looked like he might do it again.

But eventually, in a rocky stop-and-start hearing Thursday, Cochran admitted to a federal judge that he took $14,000 from a charitable 20th Ward fund and used it for personal expenses — an admission that ended his career on the City Council.

Though Cochran at first quibbled with a prosecutor, he ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud more than two years after the feds hit him with a 15-count indictment. U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso set his sentencing hearing for June 20.

Cochran faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, but he is more likely to spend between 12 and 18 months behind bars.

After Thursday’s hearing at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Cochran’s attorney said in a statement that Cochran looked forward to paying back the $14,000 he took. He also noted that Cochran did not admit taking bribes, as prosecutors had alleged.

“Alderman Cochran has always steadfastly denied taking any bribes and continues to do so,” the statement from attorney Christopher T. Grohman said.

Still, Cochran now follows in the footsteps of his predecessor, former 20th Ward Ald. Arenda Troutman, who went to prison for shaking down developers. Cliff Kelley, another former 20th Ward alderman, was also among five aldermen caught up in a bribery scheme.

It wasn’t clear Thursday if Mayor Rahm Emanuel would appoint a replacement for Cochran, whose position as alderman ended with his guilty plea. The winner of an April 2 run-off election in the 20th Ward will take office in only two months, on May 20.

“We are evaluating our options and will do what is in the best interest of the city and the residents of the 20th Ward,” Matt McGrath, the mayor’s press secretary, said.

Once Cochran is sentenced, prosecutors are expected to drop the other charges Cochran faced, which alleged he took bribes from businessmen seeking favors.

Cochran’s 17-page plea agreement with the feds says Cochran solicited donations for a 20th Ward Activities Fund he controlled, telling people the money would be used for a summer back-to-school picnic, a Valentine’s Day event for senior citizens and other holiday get-togethers.

Though it acknowledges the events were held and paid for with money from the fund, it also says Cochran used some donations to the account for personal expenses, including his daughter’s tuition.

Cochran put $32,000 of his own money into the account, but he took out and used more than that on personal spending, according to the plea deal.

In all, the feds say he took $14,285 more than what he put in between January 2010 and April 2014.

While facing the judge Thursday, though, Cochran took issue with one detail in the plea agreement. By doing so, he nearly short-circuited the entire hearing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather McShain said an unnamed person wrote a $2,000 check from an unnamed company in September 2011, and Cochran deposited that money into the 20th Ward fund, which until then had a negative balance. The next day, Cochran took $489 out of the account through three ATM withdrawals, two of which were at the Ameristar casino.

When Alonso asked Cochran whether that was true, Cochran said, “for the most part.” Then, after Cochran took some time to speak to his attorney, Alonso said he wanted to hear, directly from Cochran, what Cochran had done wrong.

That prompted yet another recess — and Cochran left the courtroom for about 30 minutes. Eventually, Cochran returned with a statement in which he made clear the $2,000 received in September 2011 was “unsolicited.”

That seemed to satisfy the prosecutor and the judge. And moments later, Cochran pleaded guilty.

Cochran had been expected to plead guilty last November. Then, Cochran’s attorney said plea negotiations with federal prosecutors had broken down, so Alonso scheduled a June trial. Earlier this month, word arrived that Cochran had changed his mind again.

However, his plea now comes amid a series of headline-grabbing public corruption scandals in Chicago.

Fellow Ald. Ed Burke (14th) was charged by federal prosecutors in January with attempted extortion. The Sun-Times then revealed that the feds had built a corruption case against Ald. Danny Solis (25th) prompting him to secretly record Burke.

Earlier this month, former 10th Ward Ald. Edward Vrdolyak also pleaded guilty in a separate case to tax evasion.

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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