Chicago alderman pleads not guilty in corruption case

CHICAGO (AP) - A prominent Chicago alderman has pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges during an initial court appearance.

Willie Cochran appeared in federal court in Chicago on Thursday accompanied by several relatives. The 64-year-old Democrat stood in a pinstripe suit and purple tie with his hands folded in front of him as attorney Thomas Durkin entered the plea on his behalf. 

The 15-count indictment includes bribery and extortion counts. It alleges Cochran extorted money from a store owner and pilfered funds from an activities fund to pay for gambling and his daughter's college tuition.

Durkin said later that there's no evidence Cochran sought to accept money for official actions. He said Cochran used some fund money but also put money back. 

A status hearing is set for Jan. 11.

According to Illinois corruption researchers Dick Simpson and Thomas Gradel, more than 30 Chicago aldermen have been convicted of crimes since 1973, most of them on bribery and extortion charges.

Here's a look at some instances of corruption in Chicago:

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THE NUMBERS

More than 1,000 public officials and businessmen in Illinois have been convicted of public corruption since 1970, including imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But corruption among politicians on Chicago's premier lawmaking body has been particularly persistent, according to Simpson and Gradel.

"The guilty aldermen include bumblers but also some of the most brilliant politicians of their era," the researchers wrote in an anti-corruption report.

The phenomenon can be traced to the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, after which developers rebuilding the city relied heavily on approval by assorted inspectors and on favors from lawmakers. The corruption persisted, the report says, partly because of the dominance of the Democratic Party in Chicago and its own patronage system.

"In most cases," the report says, "the Chicago political machine taught the crooked aldermen, in one way or another, the fine art of graft."

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LATEST CASES

Cochran, a 64-year-old Democrat, is accused of pilfering at least $30,000 from a charitable fund for poor constituents, spending it at casinos and to pay his daughter's college tuition. Defense attorney Thomas Durkin said after Cochran's Friday arraignment that his client would fight the charges. Durkin also suggested that aldermen from poorer districts, such as Cochran's 20th Ward on the South Side, "end up getting targeted more" than their counterparts in wealthier Chicago wards.

Just a month earlier, a grand jury indicted a former alderman nicknamed "Fast Eddie" for his adeptness at backroom dealing. The indictment says Edward R. Vrdolyak was offered $65 million in legal fees stemming from a $9 billion tobacco settlement with Illinois even though he did no legal work on the case. It charges the 78-year-old Democrat with impeding the IRS and income tax evasion as he allegedly sought to help a co-defendant evade paying around $800,000 in income taxes. He's pleaded not guilty.

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ONE FOLLOWS ANOTHER

In some instances, those who have replaced aldermen who were imprisoned for corruption have themselves been indicted. Cochran is one such case.

Cochran's 20th Ward predecessor, Arenda Troutman, was sentenced in 2009 to four years in prison for accepting $10,000 in bribes to secure a developer alley access. Prosecutors say she even blocked a housing development for low-income families because a developer wouldn't pay up.

U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo told her she could have done good things for her constituents: "Instead, you join the Hall of Shame of politicians who sold their offices."

With Cochran's indictment, his district now has this dubious claim to corruption fame: Three of its past four aldermen have been indicted while in office.

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OTHER INSTANCES

One alderman who displayed special chutzpah was Larry Bloom.

For more than a decade into the 1990s, Bloom successfully fostered an image for fastidious honesty, until a businessman working with investigators caught Bloom on tape taking bribes.

Bloom was charged in a 14-count federal indictment and eventually sentenced to six months in prison for tax fraud.

At his 1999 sentencing, Judge Milton Shadur told Bloom: "You had seemed to be a symbol of integrity."

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