Indicted Chicago Ald. Willie Cochran is expected to take a plea deal in his federal corruption case next week and had been planning on resigning his City Council seat effective this weekend, according to emails obtained by WBEZ.
Cochran, the 20th Ward alderman who faces federal bribery and wire fraud charges, outlined what appears to be the details of a plea deal in several emails he wrote from his City Hall account earlier this month. WBEZ obtained those emails through a state open records request.
On March 5, the South Side alderman gave notice of his decision in separate emails to neighborhood developers, pastors, business leaders and two top aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
At around 4 p.m. that Tuesday afternoon, Cochran emailed Felicia Dawson and Bill Egar with POAH Communities, a national affordable housing developer with properties in Woodlawn and Washington Park.
The email subject line: “PLEA.”
“We have been able to work with the US Atty Office and will be returning to court on the 21st to get this burden off of me,” he writes, adding details of an apparent plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
“One count of wire fraud $489 dollars,” reads one email. “Fourteen of Fifteen counts dropped. No Corruption. I also have to Resign. $15K fine. I am agreeing to this deal. Judge then decides at a later day about punishment.”
Cochran also indicated then that he planned to resign, effective this Sunday.
When reached via text about the emails on the evening of March 5, Cochran confirmed to WBEZ that he is planning to resign.
But now, his plans are unclear. When asked about the email again on Friday, Cochran replied that “other info in that is not reliable,” save for the date of his change of plea hearing on March 21, but declined to comment further. The City Clerk’s office late Friday afternoon said it had received no resignation notice from Cochran.
Also on Friday, Cochran’s lawyer, Christopher Grohman, said, “I can’t discuss the plea until it is official so after he enters it. I can tell you that there are no mandatory fines and the [United States Attoney’s Office] can’t force him to resign.” A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago declined to comment.
A 15-count indictment from 2016 accused Cochran of shaking down developers and using a neighborhood charity he set up to feed his gambling habit and pay his daughter’s tuition. The grand jury indictment accused Cochran of withdrawing $25,000 from that charity at ATMs “in or near the vicinity of casinos where Cochran gambled.”
Despite his apparent plea deal, Cochran seemed to defend himself against the feds’ allegations in his emails. He complained of being “dogged out bad across the national news services for acts I did not commit” and suggested he often used money out of his own pocket to fund charity actions.
“My daughter worked out of my office and was entitled to be paid,” reads the email. “Just so happened the money I deposited in the CHECKING ACCOUNT — not a CHARITY — even covered that amount they don’t want to recognize for the true purpose it was paid.”
He later sent an almost identical email to influential neighborhood leaders: Byron Brazier, pastor of a Woodlawn mega-church; Leon Finney, a Woodlawn developer and former city plan commissioner who is a key ally to the development team for the Obama Presidential Center; Richard Tolliver, a rector of St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church and perennial city board member; Torrey Barrett, a pastor and former member of the city’s Police Board.
“I have Learned a lot,” the email reads. “I am sorry and apologize for being in this mess. I repeat I am grateful and have grown in many ways and accept my role in this tragedy. I have grown and moaned a LOT. Smarter than ever before. Been quite an ordeal and it still isn’t over.”
Cochran, who is not running for re-election, has been going back and forth for months on whether to change his plea or take his case to trial.
Last November, Cochran went before U.S. District Court Judge Judge Jorge Alonso. The embattled alderman had intended to take a plea deal that included no jail time and only one count of wire fraud — similar to the apparent deal he writes about in those March emails. But at the last minute, Cochran changed his mind and requested a jury trial for this summer.
Following the court appearance, Grohman told reporters his client “couldn’t stomach the idea of admitting to something he believes he did not do.”
“He’s at peace with his decision and, you know, he’s going to take it to a jury and accept what the jury has to say,” Grohman said then.
WBEZ’s Natalie Moore contributed to this story.
Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.