DOWNTOWN — Indicted Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) rejected a plea deal Wednesday offered by federal prosecutors to resolve charges that the South Side alderman shook down a local business owner and stole $30,000 he collected to help people in his ward.
U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso set a June 3 trial date, and prosecutors said they expect the trial to last two weeks.
Christopher Grohman, Cochran’s attorney, told reporters after the brief hearing that the alderman “couldn’t stomach the idea of admitting to something he believes that he did not do.”
“He’s at peace with his decision, he’s going to take it to a jury and accept what the jury has to say,” Grohman said. “After reviewing the plea deal, the alderman could not come to terms to admitting that he defrauded any of the people that he solicited funds (from) for his charity. He never intended to defraud any of those constituents.”
Cochran’s decision to reject the plea agreement that had been in the works for months was first reported by The Daily Line.
If convicted, Cochran could face approximately five years in prison, Grohman said.
Cochran waved to reporters after the hearing, but declined to answer questions.
The plea offer did not include mandatory jail time, Grohman said. It required Cochran to admit to one count of wire fraud, he added.
“It is a big risk,” Grohman said of Cochran’s decision to reject the plea agreement and face trial on all 15 counts of the indictment handed down in December 2016.
However, Grohman called the witnesses set to testify against Cochran “weak,” and said there was no evidence that his client had accepted bribes.
15 candidates running to replace Cochran
Cochran’s indictment became public during the December 2016 City Council meeting. He did not file to run for re-election Monday. Fifteen candidates are running to replace Cochran, who is the third 20th Ward alderman since 1987 to be indicted for committing a crime connected to his or her official duties.
If he is convicted at trial, or ultimately accepts a plea, Cochran will become the 30th alderman since 1972 to be convicted of corruption.
A retired Chicago police officer who represents the neighborhoods he once patrolled, Cochran is accused of using $5,000 he stole from the 20th Ward Activities Fund to pay his daughter’s college tuition and $25,0000 to fund trips to Indiana casinos.
In court filings, Grohman has argued that Cochran was innocent of the charges of the bribery against him, and made bookkeeping errors.
All of the money Cochran took from that charitable fund has been “covered or almost covered,” and all promised charitable events — including Christmas parties and back-to-school drives — took place, Grohman told reporters Wednesday.
Cochran is also accused of shaking down a lawyer for $1,500 and a local liquor store owner for $3,000 in exchange for helping them in the ward, according to the indictment.
“Alderman Cochran was doing exactly what an alderman should do — helping a minority business owner to develop abandoned buildings and lots in an impoverished community,” Grohman wrote in court filings.
Cochran remains a member of the City Council, and is not scheduled to go to trial until after his term expires this spring. Fifteen candidates are running to represent the 20th Ward, which includes Woodlawn and neighborhoods adjacent to the planned Obama Presidential Center.
One candidate, Andre Smith, attended Cochran’s court hearing and told reporters he should step down immediately.
The FBI began investigating Cochran based on information developed by former Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, according to a statement from former U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon.
Cochran was elected in 2008 to replace Ald. Arenda Troutman, who pleaded guilty to charges that she demanded political contributions from developers looking to do business in her ward. Those charges were highlighted by Troutman’s now infamous quote caught on tape: “Most aldermen, most politicians are hos.”
Troutman was sentenced to four years in prison.
Former Ald. Cliff Kelley was indicted in 1986 on charges of bribery and income tax evasion. 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.
As alderman, Cochran earned $117,832 annually in addition to his annual police pension of more than $60,000, records show.