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Cochran explains why he rejected plea deal and rolled the dice on a trial

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) exits the the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Wednesday morning, Nov. 28, 2018. Cochran rejected a plea deal and will stand trial in June 2019 on federal corruption charges. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) exits the the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Wednesday morning, Nov. 28, 2018. Cochran rejected a plea deal and will stand trial in June 2019 on federal corruption charges. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Indicted Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) said Wednesday he rolled the dice — by choosing a trial over a plea deal that could have kept him out of prison —because he could not bring himself to make an “admission of guilt that was not true.”

“We did not get to the point that I was comfortable with. There were some things … in the plea that I did not agree with,” Cochran told ABC-7 during a hallway interview at City Hall between committee hearings.

“Just having me to say some things that were not true … An admission of guilt that was not true. So I had to push away from the deal.”

Last week, U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso showed up in court expecting Cochran to plead guilty to a single fraud charge only to find that the alderman had rejected the deal that his attorney had spent months negotiating.

Cochran’s lawyer, Christopher Grohman, explained on that day that the talks broke down after Cochran rejected an offer that would have allowed him to plead guilty to one count of fraud with a possibility of minimal-to-no time in prison.

Cochran does not deny using money from the charitable account he created for casino expenses or his daughter’s tuition. Some of that money was withdrawn at ATMs located near casinos where the alderman liked to gamble.

But Grohman argued on that day that Cochran deposited personal funds into the charitable account to “cover or almost cover” the personal expenses.

“He couldn’t stomach the idea of admitting to something he didn’t do,” Grohman told reporters outside court.

“After reviewing the plea deal, the alderman could not come to terms to admitting that he defrauded any of the people that he solicited funds [from] for his charity … He never intended to defraud any of those constituents.”

Grohman openly acknowledged that Cochran was taking a “big risk” by going to trial on June 3 when the plea deal he rejected gave him a “strong shot” at probation.

But the ultimate decision belongs to the accused, he said.

“I always say, `Listen. A year from now you’re going to be the one who is admitting guilt in court,’ ” Grohman said then of the advice he gives his clients.

“You may wake up in prison, might be a short sentence in prison, but at the end of the day if you’re going to continue to lose sleep and feel as though you did nothing wrong, then you only have one option.”

A 22-page indictment 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.

On Nov. 2, 2017, Cochran collapsed during City Council budget hearings. Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) saw Cochran slump in his seat and shouted, “Man down!”

Several aldermen rushed to Cochran’s side. Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, administered the CPR he had learned as a lifeguard, possibly saving Cochran’s life.

Eleven days later, Cochran returned to City Hall and declared he would not seek re-election — only to tell colleagues months later that he did plan to run. The now-failed plea negotiations put the kibosh on that idea.

The health scare provided Cochran with a different kind of attention than the kind he got when he showed up at a City Council meeting on the day he was indicted.

On that day, Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th), whose ward and City Council offices were raided by the feds last week, showed Cochran a story about the political corruption indictment on an iPad.

That prompted Cochran to flee the council chambers out the front door as a pack of reporters and television cameras chased him down the hall.

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.