DOWNTOWN — Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), a retired Chicago police officer, pleaded not guilty Friday to federal charges that he shook down a local business owner and stole $30,000 he collected to help people in his ward, court records show.
A federal grand jury indicted the alderman Dec. 14 on 15 counts of wire fraud, bribery and extortion. Prosecutors say he took $25,000 to support a gambling habit and $5,000 to pay his daughter's college tuition from a 20th Ward fund he set up to help kids and other local residents.
Cochran, 64, has said he is innocent of the charges, and will not resign from the City Council. He posted a $4,500 bond and surrendered his passport at the brief hearing, accompanied by his wife, two daughters, other family members and a friend.
Thomas Durkin, Cochran's attorney, said much of the indictment of his client was "flat-out wrong."
"Is there a quid pro? We say no," Durkin said at a press conference after the hearing, calling the case against his client "penny ante."
Cochran was targeted by federal officials because of his position as alderman, Durkin said.
Durkin said there was no question that the alderman took money from the 20th Ward fund, which he said contained $177,000 at one point. But the alderman "put money back into the fund" and declared it as income on his taxes, Durkin said.
"In hindsight, I might characterize it as stupid or careless," Durkin said, adding that as alderman of a poor South Side community, Cochran did not have access to high-powered attorneys or accountants to recommend better practices such as registering the fund as a tax-exempt charity.
Money from the fund was used as it was intended, Durkin said at a news conference after the brief hearing.
"It brought meals to people, it brought assistance to people," Durkin said, acknowledging that the alderman liked to gamble but saying he had no knowledge that the alderman had a gambling addiction or a problem with alcohol.
In addition, the indictment alleges that Cochran shook down a lawyer for $1,500 and a local liquor store owner for $3,000 in exchange for helping them in the ward, prosecutors said.
Durkin noted that one email featured a request from a contributor to the mayor's campaign pleading with the mayor to block a proposed zoning change that would have allowed a home on Cedar Street in Streeterville to be marketed over the internet to vacationers.
"Maybe zoning changes on Cedar Street are different than they are on Stony Island?" Durkin said.
Mayoral spokesman Adam Collins dismissed the comparison.
"Ald. Cochran deserves his day in court on the charges against him, but only the most creative of defense attorneys could possibly conflate his charges with the insignificant contents of the emails released this week," Collins said in a statement.
Durkin — who joked about the United States becoming a "police state" after the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump — noted that Trump had never been accused of bribery, even though in January he bragged about buying politicians by giving them contributions.
Durkin said he would argue that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the corruption case against Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell — which led to all charges being dismissed — significantly narrowed the definition of what constituted a corrupt act by a public official as part of a bargain and supported the alderman's claim of innocence.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich made a similar — but unsuccessful argument at his corruption trial, maintaining that he engaged only in legal political horse-trading.
A federal appeals court later tossed convictions on five of the charges against Blagojevich that claimed the governor broke the law when he sought a Cabinet appointment from President Barack Obama's administration in return for appointing a top Obama aide to a Senate seat.
Durkin said that ruling will be helpful to Cochran's defense.
Durking said his client already had been "tried and convicted in the press," and he was weighing whether to ask a judge — rather than a jury — to decide the case.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Jan. 11 before Judge Jorge Alonso. However, Cochran is scheduled to have knee surgery Jan. 6 and will not be required to appear.
Cochran told donors to the 20th Ward Advisory Fund that the money would be used to hold a back-to-school picnic, holiday parties, a Valentine's Day dance for seniors and to buy children winter coats, gloves and hats but instead used that money himself, according to the indictment.
Cochran, who was the only person authorized to withdraw money from the fund, used $5,000 in 2011 to pay his daughter's college tuition and withdrew $25,000 from the fund using ATMs near casinos where the alderman gambled, according to the indictment.
In a separate count, the indictment alleges Cochran took $3,000 in cash from someone who needed his support to lift a moratorium on packaged liquor sales on the west side of Cottage Grove Avenue between Marquette Road and 68th Street. The Council passed the measure, approving the store in April 2015.
Last month, Cochran introduced a measure to reverse that action and prevent liquor sales on that block. The revised measure was approved by the Council.
Cochran, 64, is the third alderman of the 20th Ward — which includes Woodlawn, Back of the Yards, New City, Englewood, Greater Grand Crossing and Washington Park — to be accused of criminal wrongdoing.
If convicted, Cochran faces a maximum sentence of 280 years in prison, federal officials said.
A police officer and marshal for 26 years, Cochran worked as a community organizer and ran a business before being elected in 2008 to replace Ald. Arenda Troutman, who pleaded guilty to demanding political contributions from developers looking to do business in her ward.
Those charges were highlighted by Troutman's now infamous quote: "Most aldermen, most politicians are hos."
Troutman was sentenced to four years in prison.
Cochran joins a long list of Chicago aldermen accused of criminal wrongdoing while in office.
Between 1973 and 2012, 31 aldermen were convicted of corruption. About 100 aldermen served in that period, which is a conviction rate of about one-third.
Cochran is the first alderman to make Chicago's infamous Hall of Shame for corruption charges since Isaac Carothers, former head of the Council's Police and Fire Committee. He pleaded guilty in 2010 to illegally taking thousands in cash from developers.
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