Chicago Ald. Willie Cochran to plead guilty to corruption charges

Chicago Ald. Willie Cochran to plead guilty to corruption charges

The South Side alderman had been charged with stealing charity donations to finance his daughter’s college tuition payments and casino getaways in Indiana, among other offences.

Putting to rest re-election rumors that surfaced in June, a lawyer representing Chicago Ald. Willie Cochran, 20th Ward, announced the alderman’s intent to plead guilty to a host of corruption charges, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The announcement came following an Aug. 15 court hearing, with attorney Christopher Grohman disclosing that while a plea agreement with prosecutors had not yet been finalized, negotiations stemming back to June would likely wrap up in the coming weeks, with little chance of the case going to trial.

Cochran is the third of the last four 20th Ward aldermen to be indicted while holding office. But beyond the 20th Ward, Cochran is set to become the 34th Chicago alderman convicted on corruption charges since 1972, if he pleads guilty.

Federal authorities served Cochran a 15-count indictment in December 2016, alleging the South Side alderman had extorted a pair of business owners, seeking financial contributions in exchange for political support.

Prosecutors also allege that Cochran, a former Chicago police officer, pilfered donations from a charitable fund to finance his daughter’s college tuition payments, Mercedes-Benz tune-ups and a gambling habit that involved frequent trips to Indiana casinos. The charity, the 20th Ward Activities Fund, had been set up to aid families and children in his South Side ward.

All told, the local lawmaker incurred 11 counts of wire fraud, two counts of federal program bribery and two counts of extortion.

The announcement of Cochran’s pending guilty plea also comes following multiple unsuccessful attempts by the alderman’s defense to get charges such as bribery and extortion dropped from the indictment. Grohman has contended that testimony from the two alleged victims of extortion had been influenced improperly by pressure from the FBI.

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

Unfortunately, the culture of corruption in Chicago runs deeper than just Cochran’s malfeasance. Corruption is an inevitable consequence of the city’s structure of governance, which privileges aldermen as rulers of a mini-fiefdom – controlling the day-to-day lives of businesses and homeowners through power over permitting, zoning and more – rather than legislators concerned with citywide policy. One year prior to authorities bringing charges against Cochran, members of the City Council shuttered their own oversight office – and put blinders on the watchdog taking its place.

With an aldermanic tradition that treats political corruption as a matter of convention, it’s little wonder Chicago aldermen treat transparency like a crime.

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