CHICAGO (CBS) — Rejecting a plea deal that his defense attorney said likely would have resulted in minimal jail time, outgoing Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) will instead face trial on fraud and bribery charges.
Cochran pleaded not guilty in 2016 to a 15-count indictment charging him with wire fraud, bribery, and extortion, but had been negotiating a deal with federal prosecutors.
At a change of plea hearing on Wednesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys revealed plea negotiations had broken down. Without a plea deal in place, Cochran now expects to go to trial to defend himself against the corruption charges. The trial date has been set for June 3.
“He couldn’t stomach the idea of admitting to something he believes he did not do,” defense attorney Christopher Grohman said after the hearing. “He’s at peace with his decision, and he’s going to take it to a jury, and accept what the jury has to say.”
Federal prosecutors have accused him of demanding $1,500 from an attorney for a real estate developer seeking to fix up vacant homes in his ward, and a $3,000 cash bribe from a liquor store owner seeking to sell his business to someone who needed a city liquor license. The feds also accused Cochran of using $5,000 from a charity he ran to pay for his daughter’s college tuition, and another $25,000 on casino gambling.
Grohman said Cochran acknowledges using funds from the charity for his daughter’s tuition, and to withdrawing money from the fund at the casino, but insisted the alderman paid the money back, so did not defraud people he solicited for donations to the charity.
“He did put sufficient funds of his own funds into that same account, sufficient to either cover or almost cover the personal expenses that he took out. Therefore, all the representations he made about where the money would be spent were, in fact, correct; and, therefore, do not form the basis for a federal fraud charge,” Grohman said.
As for the bribery and extortion charges, Grohman claimed there are only two witnesses against the alderman, one who has committing perjury in front of the grand jury; and another who has admitted giving the alderman money, but didn’t ask for anything in exchange.
Cochran’s attorney said the plea deal offered by the feds would have allowed the alderman to plead guilty to only one count of wire fraud, and likely would have meant he would face minimal jail time, possibly only probation, although he said the sentence would have been up to the judge. If convicted of the bribery, extortion, and fraud charges at trial, Cochran would face more than five years behind bars.
Grohman acknowledged Cochran is taking “a big risk” in rejecting a deal that might allow him to avoid jail.
“One thing I always tell my clients when I negotiate a plea agreement and offer the plea agreement and explain what the consequences are, I always say, listen, a year from now you’re going to be the one who has admitted guilt in court, and may wake up in prison,” he said. “It might be a short sentence in prison, but at the end of the day, if you’re going to continue to lose sleep and feel as though you did nothing wrong, then you really only have one option. That option’s to go to trial.”
Cochran, a three-term alderman, is not running for re-election in 2019, but Grohman said he does not know if Cochran plans to step down before his current term expires.
A former Chicago police sergeant, Cochran first was elected alderman of the 20th Ward in 2007, defeating his predecessor, Ald. Arenda Troutman, who was facing bribery charges of her own at the time. She later was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.
Another former 20th Ward alderman, Cliff Kelley, was indicted in 1986 for bribery and income tax evasion. He was convicted a year later and served 9 1/2 months in prison.