Former Chicago Ald. Willie Cochran was sentenced to a year in federal prison on Monday after pleading guilty to felony wire fraud for misspending money from a neighborhood charity.
U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso sentenced the ex-alderman to one year and one day in prison, followed by two years of supervised release. That follows Cochran’s about-face decision in March to plead guilty to a single count of wire fraud.
“I am better than this,” Cochran told the judge before receiving his sentence. “My human frailties have brought me shame.”
In handing down the sentence, Alonso characterized Cochran’s behavior as “calculated” and said, even though he did not plead guilty to the earlier bribery and extortion charges, the former alderman committed a “breach of the public trust.”
“Unfortunately, like others before him, he fell into temptation,” Alonso said. He added: “He had everything. There was no need, there was no poverty or desperation.”
The former 20th Ward alderman lost his South Side City Council seat when he entered that plea, per city law. Cochran was first elected in 2007, after defeating Ald. Arenda Troutman, who was under a corruption indictment at the time and ultimately pleaded guilty.
Lawyers for Cochran argued in a court filing earlier this month that their client should not have to serve prison time, because incarceration has proven to be an inadequate deterrent to public corruption in Chicago.
But prosecutors recommended Cochran get at least 18 months in prison, arguing that despite a six-figure City Hall salary, the former alderman’s greed drove him to exploit his official position for his own personal benefit.
A 15-count indictment from 2016 accused Cochran of shaking down developers and using a neighborhood charity he set up to support 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.”
In court on Monday, federal prosecutor Heather McShain characterized Cochran’s crime as a “classic shakedown” and a “classic use of his office to support himself.” She portrayed Cochran as a man who lived well above his means, consumed by himself, his own financial problems and his own personal greed.
Cochran has gone back and forth on whether to take a plea deal or fight the charges. In November of last year, he initially told a federal judge he wanted to go to trial because, as his lawyer put it, “he couldn’t stomach the idea of admitting to something he believes he did not do.”
But in March Cochran indicated in emails written from his City Hall account that he intended to plead guilty to a single count, though his tone remained defiant.
He complained of being “dogged out bad across the national news services for acts I did not commit,” according to the emails, first reported by WBEZ. He also 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,” read one 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.”
A week later, Cochran pleaded guilty to a single count of felony wire fraud.
Cochran did not seek reelection in February’s municipal election. He was succeeded in the City Council by Ald. Jeanette Taylor.