CHICAGO (CBS) — Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) has been indicted on federal charges, for allegedly shaking down businessmen in his ward for bribes, and for allegedly looting money from a charity he ran.
The 15-count indictment made public on Wednesday charges Cochran with 11 counts of wire fraud, two counts of federal program bribery, and two counts of extortion.
The indictment accuses Cochran of soliciting donations to the 20th Ward Activities Fund, claiming the money would be used for various charitable causes; but then using money from the fund to pay for his daughter’s college tuition, to gamble at casinos, and to purchase items for his home.
According to the indictment, Cochran told donors the fund would be used to help families in the 20th Ward, including school supplies and clothing for a back-to-school picnic, a Valentine’s Day event for seniors, and food and clothing for annual Thanksgiving and Christmas-related events.
Cochran, 64, allegedly used money from the fund to pay $5,000 of his daughter’s college tuition in 2011, and spent money from the fund on personal items for his home. He also allegedly withdrew $25,000 from the fund through ATMs near casinos where he gambled.
The indictment also accuses Cochran of extorting bribes from two businessmen seeking his support for deals in his ward.
According to the indictment, Cochran demanded a check for $1,500 from an attorney, identified only as “Individual A,” in exchange for the alderman’s continued support for real estate projects in his ward.
Individual A allegedly had already sought and received a letter of support from Cochran, allowing real estate developers he represented to participate in the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a federally-funded effort to fix up vacant foreclosed homes and get them occupied as quickly as possible. According to court documents, Individual A gave Cochran a $1,500 check with the payee portion blank.
The indictment also alleges Cochran demanded a $3,000 cash bribe from a liquor store owner seeking to sell his business to a buyer who would need a city liquor license.
If convicted of all charges, Cochran could face a total of 280 years in prison.
The alderman was attending a City Council meeting on Wednesday when the indictment was announced. He stayed in his seat for about an hour before leaving through the front door of the chamber, rather than the back door aldermen normally use. Reporters covering the meeting scrambled to catch up to him, but he declined to comment on the charges as he walked to his City Hall office.
Cochran’s attorney, Thomas Durkin, said he has not had a chance to review the indictment.
“However, I believe there may be significant legal and factual challenges to it. Alderman Cochran has a tremendous reputation and has been a community leader for years, in addition to being a Chicago Police Officer. He has a Masters degree in Public Administration and has fought hard for the residents of the 20th Ward. We intend to fight these charges vigorously,” Durkin said in an email.
The 20th Ward is no stranger to allegations of aldermanic corruption. Cochran, a former police officer, is the second consecutive alderman in the ward to face federal indictment. Cochran defeated former Ald. Arneda Troutman in the 2007 election as she was facing federal bribery charges. She later pleaded guilty to mail fraud and tax fraud in 2009, and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Another former 20th Ward alderman, Cliff Kelley, was was indicted in 1986 for bribery and income tax evasion. He was convicted a year later and served 9 1/2 months in prison. 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.