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What Happens When An Alderman Is Indicted During A City Council Meeting

During the last City Council meeting of 2016, aldermen celebrated the once in a lifetime event of the Cubs winning the World Series -- and a far more common situation played out in front of their eyes. 

Ald. Willie Cochran, a former Chicago police officer who represents the South Side’s 20th Ward, on Wednesday joined the long list of council members who have faced federal criminal charges. But this time, the indictment came down while the accused sat in the middle of a City Council meeting, listening to his colleagues revel in the Chicago Cubs’ World Series win.

Just a few feet away from Cochran were Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who presided over the meeting, and Cubs owners and siblings Tom and Laura Ricketts, who stopped by with the World Series trophy. 

And in true council fashion, alderman after alderman, both Cubs and White Sox fans, stood up on the council floor to share their own Cubs memories, some even sporting Cubs gear.

Ever the Chicago historian, Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, took the council back 108 years, reminding everyone present there was a Republican mayor leading Chicago at that time.

“Strike that from the record,” Emanuel quipped. 

And then, about 20 minutes into the celebration, people noticed on their phones and laptops that the Chicago Tribune broke the news that Cochran had been indicted on charges alleging he stole money from a charitable fund for children and seniors and accepted bribes.

Reporters immediately started looking around the chambers and noticed Cochran was still in the room, sitting in his regularly assigned seat. 

Even longtime City Hall reporters were stunned by the scene. 

Moments after the news broke, Burke got up from his front-row seat and walked over to Cochran. The two spoke briefly, and Burke later returned to Cochran’s desk to show him something on his iPad. 

The Cubs celebration continued for more than an hour. Cochran had a few other visitors come by his desk, including members of the council’s sergeant-at-arms team. One alderman came by the press box, quietly asking reporters if they saw the Tribune story. 

Eventually, the speeches honoring the Cubs came to a close. Cochran slowly rose from his seat and walked toward the door. 

Reporters bolted from the press box after him (including a WBEZ reporter, who ran so hard that people could hear her boots echoing through the hallways of the City Council). 

Cochran was escorted by an assistant to the sergeant-at-arms, while reporters shouted questions. Cochran mostly ignored them.

“We have to look at the details. I have not seen any details, so it’s not possible for me to make any comment,” Cochran said. 

Reporters followed him up a flight of stairs to the third floor, where he disappeared into his office. 

Cochran later texted reporters that he does not plan to step down. 

Ald. Willie Cochran texted reporters a statement on his indictment. (Hunter Clauss/WBEZ)

“I can say my colleagues and the people of the 20th ward are strong supporters for my family and I and am confident that this will be resolved. I am happy to serve the 20th ward and will continue to do so. My service and growth of the twentieth ward is undeniable. That will continue and be even greater,” Cochran said in the text message. 

Back in the council chambers, business continued as usual. Most aldermen would only speak privately to reporters about Cochran’s indictment. One called the situation “sad” but said the news wasn’t a surprise. Emanuel said the Cochran family was in his thoughts, but cautioned that his indictment shouldn’t reflect on the entire council. 

Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th Ward, said there was nothing attractive about what went down in City Hall Wednesday. 

“People have a lack of faith as far as elected officials,” Beale told a gaggle of reporters. “And this puts a black eye on that face.”

Lauren Chooljian covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her at @laurenchooljian.

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