WOODLAWN — Clergy said the 20th Ward has again been thrown into a time of confusion and uncertainty after Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) was indicted Wednesday.
Leaders at major churches in Woodlawn and Washington Park declined to say whether they think Cochran is guilty of the federal charges that he shook down business owners and developers for cash.
The Rev. Byron Brazier of Apostolic Church of God, 6320 S. Dorchester Ave., said the questioning of whether Woodlawn’s alderman is corrupt comes at a critical time for the neighborhood.
“There are catalytic changes coming to Woodlawn, and the residents are united and organized to put in the work needed to make Woodlawn a community of choice,” Brazier said. “I am confident that community stakeholders and city leadership will work together to lead us through this time of uncertainty.”
Cochran has been indicted on charges that include wire fraud, bribery and extortion. Prosecutors say he took money from a ward fund to help children and residents and spent $25,000 to support a gambling habit and $5,000 to pay his daughter's college tuition.
The indictment also alleges that he took $3,000 in cash from a liquor store owner seeking to sell his store on the west side of Cottage Grove Avenue between Marquette Road and 68th Street.
The indictment says Cochran "corruptly solicited and demanded and accepted" items of value from an unnamed "Individual B" in exchange for Cochran sponsoring a measure in April 2015 allowing the sales on Cottage Grove. The indictment does not name the individual, but says he owned a store in late 2014 and early 2015 and needed the measure passed so he could sell the store after the precinct had gone "dry."
Since 2002, an entity known as Grove Liquors Inc. has held a license to sell liquor at 6656 S. Cottage Grove Ave., city records show. The store, which formerly went under the name Cut-Rate Liquors, was sold in August of this year, said the current owner, George Kioussis, who changed the name to Green Market Grocery and Spirits.
Kioussis said Wednesday that he's met Cochran several times but has never been asked for money or gifts from the alderman.
"That's way before my time," Kioussis said. "I don't have time to think about giving a bribe, let alone give one."
Last month, Cochran introduced a measure to reverse the measure allowing the sale, and again prevent additional liquor sales on Cottage Grove. The revised measure was approved by the council.
The federal indictment released Wednesday alleges Cochran was profiting from this renewed interest by asking for checks before plans for developments and businesses could move forward.
The Rev. Torrey Barrett of the K.L.E.O. Center, 119 E. Garfield Blvd., said the indictment is a hard blow for the ward, whose previous alderman, Arena Troutman, was indicted on bribery charges in 2007 and pleaded guilty.
“This is the second alderman this has happened to, and the ward needs someone with integrity to step into this place,” Barrett said. “It’s just unfortunate, and my prayers go out to him and his family.”
In fact, Cochran is the third sitting 20th Ward alderman to be indicted for criminal wrongdoing while in office.
Former Ald. Cliff Kelley was indicted in 1986 on charges of bribery and income tax evasion. Before he was convicted, Kelley lost the 1987 election to Ernest Jones, who died in office in 1990. Troutman was appointed to Jones’ seat after he died.
Barrett and the Rev. Richard Tolliver of St. Edmund Episcopal Church, 6105 S. Michigan Ave. both pointed out that unlike Troutman, Cochran still has only been accused of corruption and has not been convicted of anything.
“We certainly have had an alderman found guilty and that is the sad state of affairs of our people in public office,” Tolliver said. “As for Ald. Cochran, indictment does not mean guilty.”
Loren Simmons, the chief program operator at the YWCA at 6600 S. Cottage Grove Ave., said Cochran didn't visit her YWCA very often. But when he was there, the staff typically asked him about securing more funding for the center.
She said she was "very surprised" by the charges, including those suggesting he took money meant to help kids.
"Remember when he was elected, [we] thought he would have the best interest of the community at heart," Simmons said. "But these allegations come from somewhere."
Some worried what the future of the ward leadership will be if Cochran leaves office.
Corey Howard, president of the block club for the 6100 block of St. Lawrence Avenue, said he worried that Mayor Rahm Emanuel now could have more influence in the ward.
"I'm concerned if the mayor appoints somebody, it could be another 'lackey.' They would do the mayor's bidding instead of the ward's bidding," he said.
Contributing: Evan Moore
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