Another Chicago alderman pleads guilty to corruption charges

Another Chicago alderman pleads guilty to corruption charges

South Side Ald. Willie Cochran pleaded guilty March 21 to felony wire fraud for spending his ward’s charity funds on personal expenses. That’s 30 Chicago aldermen convicted of corruption since 1972.

Chicago Ald. Willie Cochran, 20th Ward, appeared in federal court March 21 to plead guilty to one felony charge of wire fraud. Federal prosecutors dropped the remaining 14 charges, including bribery and extortion.

According to the plea agreement, Cochran stole $14,000 in charitable donations from the 20th Ward Activities Fund – his ward’s charity benefiting poor children, seniors and community events – and used the funds “to pay his daughter’s tuition, to withdraw cash at casino ATMs, and to purchase items for his personal residence.” A CD titled “Call Me Irresponsible” was among the purchases listed in an FBI search warrant.

Federal authorities served Cochran with a 15-count indictment in December 2016, including 11 counts of wire fraud, two counts of federal program bribery and two counts of extortion. Cochran backed out of a previous plea deal in November 2018.

The original indictment alleged he had extorted a pair of business owners and sought financial contributions in exchange for political support, but the extortion charges were ultimately dismissed as part of the plea deal. Cochran said they were based on “unreliable testimony.” He will repay the amount stolen.

The South Side lawmaker becomes the 30th Chicago alderman to be convicted on corruption charges since 1972, as well as the third of the past four 20th Ward aldermen. By state law, the guilty plea served as Cochran’s resignation from public office. His sentencing is June 20, and the sentence may range from probation to between one year and 18 months in prison.

Prior to Cochran’s indictment in December 2016, the alderman had been the subject of a federal investigation for misuse of campaign funds. During a three-year period, Cochran paid himself more than $115,000 in funds channeled from campaign coffers.

This guilty plea comes amid a separate wide-ranging corruption scandal involving fellow Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, Chicago’s most powerful and longest serving alderman. Burke’s offices were raided in November 2018. He was later charged with one count of felony attempted extortion, with the charge stating he tried to use his elected position to get property tax legal work in exchange for restaurant remodeling permits. Burke entered a not guilty plea.

Details of a federal investigation into retiring Ald. Danny Solis, 25th Ward, became public in January 2019. No charges have been publicly filed against Solis, likely because the alderman agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and secretly record conversations with Burke and others. Solis also recorded conversations with Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, according to the Solis affidavit.

Despite federal extortion charges, Burke held off two challengers to avoid a run-off and won re-election in February.

Unfortunately, the culture of corruption in Chicago runs deeper than just Cochran, Burke or Solis. Corruption is an inevitable consequence of the city’s structure of governance. Aldermen serve as rulers of a mini-fiefdom – micromanaging the day-to-day activities of businesses and homeowners through power over permitting, zoning and more ­– rather than concerning themselves with citywide policy.

As scandals engulf Chicago, aldermen should commit themselves to increased transparency and structural reforms that would change the culture of corruption and focus on governing.

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