CHICAGO (CBS) — A defiant former Ald. Willie Cochran accused federal prosecutors of lying and hiding evidence and said it was just “a bump in the road” after he was sentenced to a year in prison for taking more than $14,000 from a charity he created to spend on gambling and his daughter’s tuition.
“There’s no justice in this. I’m not happy about it. My family’s not happy about it,” Cochran said. “The mistake I made was to plead guilty.”
During his sentencing hearing, a more contrite Cochran told a U.S. District Judge, “I am better than this.” But after learning he would go to prison, he told reporters in the courthouse lobby that federal prosecutors had lied and concealed evidence in the case.
“The prosecutor introduced information from someone who has lied repeatedly under oath, and those things that she said were, many of them untrue,” he said. “I can’t believe that, having been a law enforcement officer, knowing how improper reports have an impact on cases. You just cannot submit false reports and utilize them to prosecute or testify.”
While Cochran, 66, admitted to taking more than $14,000 out of a charitable fund he created for his own personal use, he claimed he put $37,000 back in the fund.
“This is a bump in the road. We will come back and get everything back that was stolen from us,” he added.
U.S. Attorney Jon Lausch did not address Cochran’s allegations but said he was satisfied that Cochran’s sentence would serve as a deterrent to others who would use elected office for private gain.
“We have a very stubborn public corruption issue in the city of Chicago,” he said. “There are a lot of public officials who would never think of using their public office for private gain, but for those who may be tempted to go over the line, a sentence of imprisonment, it does mean something.”
During the sentencing hearing, Judge Alonso said Cochran is part of a “long and pathetic tradition” of political corruption on the Chicago City Council. Cochran was the 30th Chicago alderman to be convicted of federal crimes committed in public office since 1973. He was also the third 20th Ward alderman convicted of corruption charges.
In March, Cochran pleaded guilty to one felony count of wire fraud, admitting he withdrew $14,285 from the 20th Ward Activities Fund — a charitable group he created ostensibly to finance programs for needy children and seniors — and converted the money for his personal use. Cochran spent the money on gambling at Ameristar Casino, his daughter’s college expenses, and goods for his home.
Under state law, he officially resigned as alderman of the 20th Ward with his felony conviction in March.
The case lingered in federal court for more than two years, in part because plea negotiations with Cochran broke down late last year. After rejecting a plea deal in November and pledging to go to trial, Cochran reached an agreement with prosecutors in March.
His sentencing came just weeks after Ald. Edward Burke (14th) was indicted for racketeering, bribery, and extortion and just days after FBI agents raided the 34th Ward office of Ald. Carrie Austin as part of an unrelated probe. Former Ald. Danny Solis also has been under federal scrutiny and cooperated with the Burke probe by wearing a wire for federal investigators to record conversations with Burke.
Cochran — who represented parts of the Woodlawn, Washington Park, Englewood, and Back of the Yards neighborhoods — is a former police officer who was elected in 2007 when he defeated 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.
Federal prosecutors had recommended a sentencing range of 12 to 24 months in prison for Cochran, while the former alderman’s attorneys had sought a sentence of only probation with six months of home confinement. They argued prison sentences for previous aldermen have not worked to deter corruption.
“Since sending the previous aldermen to jail has not done anything to curb Chicago’s tidal wave of aldermanic corruption cases, there is no reason to think that sending Mr. Cochran to jail will,” Cochran’s attorneys wrote in their sentencing memo.
Specifically, Cochran’s attorneys pointed to the corruption probe that ensnared Burke and Solis.
“Putting people in jail, even public officials, simply has no deterrent effect,” Cochran’s attorneys have argued.
As part of Cochran’s plea agreement, federal prosecutors dropped 14 of the 15 charges against Cochran, including allegations he extorted bribes from two businessmen seeking his support for deals in the 20th Ward.
According to the indictment filed in December 2016, Cochran demanded and received 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. The indictment also alleged 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.