CHICAGO (CBS) — Four months after rejecting a plea deal that his attorney said would have resulted in minimal jail time, and opting to go to trial on fraud and bribery charges, Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) again is scheduled to plead guilty in federal court.
In November, prosecutors and defense attorneys revealed plea negotiations had broken down in Cochran’s case, and U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso scheduled a jury trial for June 3.
On Tuesday, Alonso scheduled a change of plea hearing for March 21, signaling Cochran appears ready to accept a deal to avoid a trial. Cochran is charged with 11 counts of wire fraud, two counts of extortion, and two counts of bribery.
When Cochran rejected a plea deal in November, defense attorney Christopher Grohman said, “He couldn’t stomach the idea of admitting to something he believes he did not do.”
Grohman said the plea deal Cochran rejected four months ago 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 rejecting the plea deal was “a big risk” for Cochran, but said the alderman was “at peace with his decision.”
Federal prosecutors have accused Cochran 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.
It’s unclear if the plea deal offered by federal prosecutors has changed since November, or if Cochran has simply changed his mind.
Cochran, a three-term alderman, did not run for re-election in February, and will step down as alderman when his term expires in May.
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.