Ald. Willie Cochran indicted on federal fraud charges

CHICAGO (AP) - A prominent Chicago alderman has been charged with stealing at least $30,000 from a charitable fund set up in part to help poor constituents and spending it at casinos and to pay his daughter's college tuition.

In a grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday, Democrat Willie B. Cochran is also accused of demanding cash from a liquor store owner and an attorney for developers in exchange for taking action in his official capacity to help their businesses.

The indictment was filed in Chicago federal court while the 64-year-old Cochran was attending a City Council meeting. He remained in his chair as fellow aldermen and city officials stopped by for hushed conversations. Cochran abruptly left the proceedings mid-morning with a pack of reporters trailing him through City Hall.

"We have to look at the details," Cochran said. "I have not seen any details, so it's not possible for me to make any kind of comment."

Cochran is charged with 11 counts of wire fraud, and two counts each of federal program bribery and extortion. If convicted of the most serious charge, wire fraud, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

Cochran's lawyer, Thomas Durkin, said by phone from New York that he hasn't had the chance to go through all the case documents. But he added: "The alderman has an outstanding reputation. ... He has been a leader in the community for years and we intend to fight these charges vigorously."

The accusations will sound familiar to locals, who have seen many of their politicians face corruption charges over the years. Since the 1970s, nearly three-dozen aldermen have been convicted. So many went to prison, one joke went that when they saw each other behind bars, they'd holler "quorum call!"

Cochran, who just won a third term, was first elected to the council in 2007 to represent a ward on the city's Far South Side. The former Chicago police officer has been outspoken on public safety issues. He retired from law enforcement in 2003 after over 20 years.

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said in a written statement from his Chicago office that "our democratic system suffers" when public officials use their power for personal gain. He added: "We will continue to vigorously investigate and prosecute any elected official who attempts to use their office to enrich themselves."

According to the indictment, Cochran sought donations for the charitable fund, called the 20th Ward Activities Fund, by telling potential contributors that it would help needy families by feeding some and helping buy winter coats and school supplies. It says he was the sole signatory on a fund bank account. 

The indictment also says Cochran demanded $5,000 from the liquor store owner in return for later pushing an amendment through the council in 2015 allowing the issuance of licenses for such stores. He also allegedly solicited hundreds of dollars from a lawyer for companies seeking to develop land with help from a federally funded stabilization program. Neither the store owner nor the lawyer is named in the indictment, and there was no indication that either would face charges.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel declined to comment on the specifics of the case. Instead he said that public officials should not use the office for their own personal gain.

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