Residents from Chicago have been saying that this kind of corruption has been going on for years. Finally someone is paying the price for it.
Willie Cochran was running for 20th Ward alderman as a political unknown a decade ago when he vowed to steer clear of the graft and corruption that had ensnared so many Chicago politicians over the years.
“Most people in the ward are tired of our public officials being embroiled in one controversy after another,” Cochran, a former Chicago police officer, told the Tribune on the day incumbent Ald. Arenda Troutman was indicted on charges of taking kickbacks from contractors.
But instead of cleaning up the sleaze, Cochran was charged by federal authorities with being yet another corrupt Chicago alderman.
The 15-count indictment announced Wednesday alleged the South Side alderman stole tens of thousands of dollars in charitable contributions meant for poor children and seniors in the largely impoverished ward, funds he later used to gamble and pay for a portion of his daughter’s college tuition.
Using the broad powers that aldermen enjoy over business deals in their wards, Cochran also shook down a liquor store manager in exchange for his support on an ordinance change and took a bribe in connection with a federal program to clean up vacant eyesores, the charges alleged.
Cochran, 64, was charged with 11 counts of wire fraud, two counts of extortion and two counts of bribery, the most serious of which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison if convicted. He is scheduled to be arraigned Dec. 23 at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.
In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said the investigation arose from information provided by former Chicago Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, who 13 months ago turned over his files to the FBI after aldermen eliminated his post, complaining of his judgment and overreach.
Khan told the Tribune on Wednesday that Cochran’s indictment “vindicated our work.” He expressed hope that more federal charges could result from his work, saying, “We referred a number of investigations to the FBI.”
The charges come two months after the Tribune first revealed that a federal grand jury was investigating Cochran for possible misuse of funds.
The Tribune broke the news of the indictment Wednesday morning as Cochran attended the final City Council meeting of the year. Minutes later, Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, walked over to Cochran, showed him his iPad and spoke quietly to him for a couple of minutes while the council was busy honoring the Chicago Cubs with the World Series trophy at the front of chambers.
In a text message to a Tribune reporter later Wednesday, Cochran vowed to continue to stay on as alderman while under indictment. He said he and his attorney, Thomas Anthony Durkin, would work with the U.S. attorney’s office “to provide the clarity that is needed to get this matter resolved.”
“I can say my colleagues and the people of the 20th Ward are strong supporters for my family, and I am confident this will be resolved,” he wrote.
Durkin later said the alderman intends to fight the charges vigorously.
The indictment again exposed the risk of aldermen leveraging their extensive powers — in this case over real estate development and liquor licenses — for bribery.
According to the charges, Cochran was the sole signatory on the 20th Ward activities fund, a charity set up to host ward events and parties for constituents such as a summer back-to-school picnic, a Valentine’s Day party for senior citizens and events during the holiday season.
Cochran was charged with using “a significant portion” of the donations made over more than four years for his own personal use, including paying $5,000 toward his daughter’s college tuition. He also withdrew about $25,000 from ATMs in or near casinos where he gambled, according to the indictment.
In October, a real estate developer told the Tribune that the FBI had questioned him about a donation to Cochran for the ward fund.
“I’ll tell you the same thing I told them,” said the developer, who asked for anonymity. “I gave him a check, I think it was for a couple hundred dollars. … What he did with it, I have no clue.”
On Wednesday, another businessman who said he testified before the grand jury investigating Cochran told the Tribune he had written several checks to the alderman over recent years — some for as much as $300 or $500.
“I wrote a check to him for a fundraiser for kids going back to school,” said the businessman, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because federal authorities had not authorized him to talk.
“I was shocked really,” he said of the charges against Cochran. “He’s always been a straight-up guy.”
According to the indictment, Cochran also solicited a $1,500 check from an attorney — identified only as Individual A — who represented real estate developers with properties in Cochran’s ward in connection with a federal program to get boarded-up or foreclosed properties occupied as soon as possible.
Prosecutors charged that in 2010 and 2011 Cochran provided letters of support to the attorney about a particular real estate project. The unidentified project was completed in 2014.
In 2015, Cochran took a $3,000 cash bribe from a liquor store owner — identified as Individual B — in exchange for his support of an ordinance amending the municipal code to allow liquor sales in a two-block stretch of South Cottage Grove Avenue in the 20th Ward, the charges alleged. The owner wanted to sell the business, but the area had since gone “dry,” and the amendment was needed for the buyer to continue to sell liquor there.
The amendment was passed by the City Council in April 2015.
But in a twist earlier this year while Cochran was being investigated, the alderman proposed a new ordinance to again prohibit the sale of packaged liquor on that same stretch of Cottage Grove. The council approved that change in October.
Individual B, identified by the Tribune through property records as the seller of the Cottage Grove liquor store in August 2015, declined to comment when a reporter knocked on his west suburban home Wednesday evening.
Cochran had taken similar action with his campaign fund. State records show that since January 2015 the alderman has filed an unusually large number of revisions to his campaign finance paperwork — around 80, including 10 since early last month. Over the previous eight years, Cochran had filed only six amendments to his campaign records.
In some of the amended campaign finance reports, Cochran revealed he had paid himself out of his campaign fund. In several instances, Cochran did not report those payments until well after he filed his campaign reports with state elections officials — in some cases more than a year or two later.
But the indictment against Cochran makes no allegations that he misused his campaign fund.
The City Council has a long, notorious history of corruption as 29 aldermen have been convicted of crimes related to their official duties since 1972. The most recent, Isaac “Ike” Carothers, pleaded guilty in 2010 to bribery and tax charges for accepting $40,000 in home improvements for backing a developer’s controversial project in his 29th Ward. His father, William, a former alderman, was convicted 27 years earlier.
Cochran was elected in 2007 after Troutman was charged with bribery for soliciting donations from developers seeking to do business in the ward. Cochran was quick to capitalize on the news, publicly calling for Troutman to resign on the day she was arrested by the FBI.
Troutman pleaded guilty in 2008 and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Federal authorities have hinted at other investigations connected to City Hall. In August, Franshuan Myles, the head of a nonprofit group that allegedly made a $5,000 payment to a West Side alderman, pleaded not guilty to charges alleging she used state grant funds to cover personal expenses instead of providing summer jobs for youth. Charges alleged that Myles, president and executive director of Divine Praise Inc., wrote a check for $4,932 to “Individual A,” previously identified by the Tribune as 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin, after her group received a $60,000 grant for youth employment. Ervin has not been charged with wrongdoing.
Cochran, who is considered an ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, does not hold any position of power — such as a committee or caucus chairmanship — in the council hierarchy.
He won a third term in office last year, surviving a tough runoff election. After that victory, Cochran told reporters he and his wife were going to celebrate by flying to Las Vegas and renting a convertible for a West Coast road trip.
According to the biography posted on his ward’s website, Cochran is the youngest of 10 children. He has a master’s degree in public administration from the Illinois Institute of Technology and also has a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Cochran retired from the Chicago Police Department with the rank of sergeant in 2003 after 26 years on the force.
Court records hint at recent financial troubles for Cochran. He has been the target of three foreclosure lawsuits over his personal home and laundry businesses he held a financial stake in.
Cochran, who is paid $116,208 a year as alderman and also collects $60,280 annually from his police pension, suggested in late 2014 that aldermen should be paid more, saying he often works 60 hours a week or more.
Days later, he was hit with a foreclosure lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court claiming he had defaulted on the $420,000 mortgage on his Woodlawn home, according to court records. He still owed more than $384,000 on the mortgage as of November 2014, records showed.
The foreclosure was dismissed in July 2015 “due to the fact that the loan was reinstated,” court records state.
Records show it was the second time Cochran and his wife had faced foreclosure stemming from the same 2006 loan. A similar lawsuit was filed in 2012 and then dismissed months later after the loan was renegotiated, according to court records.
In 2013, Cochran, who for years owned the Rainbow Brite laundromat on East 63rd Street, was named in a foreclosure lawsuit involving a string of laundromats he had a financial stake in, according to court records. That lawsuit alleged that the business owner, Alexander Fletcher, had defaulted on a $1.5 million loan involving several laundromats. It was dismissed in 2014.