Chicago alderman indicted on federal charges of extortion, theft

Chicago Alderman Willie Cochran, 20th Ward, has been indicted on federal criminal charges.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois on Dec. 14 announced charges that Cochran “pocketed money from a charitable fund that was intended to help families and children in his South Side ward.” He was also charged with extortion of a local liquor store, as well as an Illinois attorney representing real-estate developers.

The attorney’s office alleged Cochran paid for his daughter’s college tuition and financed a gambling habit with money from the 20th Ward Activities Fund.

Cochran was charged with 11 counts of wire fraud, two counts of federal program bribery and two counts of extortion.

This trails October news that Cochran was under FBI investigation for his use of campaign funds. The Chicago Sun-Times previously reported Cochran paid himself more than $115,000 from his campaign funds over a three-year period.

Chicago City Council is one of the most corrupt political bodies in the nation. Over the past 40 years, 33 of some 200 aldermen have been convicted on corruption charges.

This culture of misconduct shows no signs of slowing down. And the lack of seriousness in tackling ethics reform – or even enforcing rules on the books – within city government is disturbing.

A July report from the government watchdog group ProjectSix revealed 37 of 50 Chicago aldermen took illegal campaign contributions in 2015. The group also found 19 aldermen using private email servers for city business. A recent survey of Chicago business leaders showed over 90 percent believed city government engages in some form of cronyism.

ProjectSix CEO Faisal Khan formerly led the now-disbanded Office of the Legislative Inspector General, which oversaw Chicago City Council members. In its announcement of Cochran’s indictment, the U.S. attorney’s office said it initiated the investigation after receiving information from Khan’s office.

“The charges against Alderman Cochran show how effective ethics oversight can make a significant difference in bettering Chicago government,” Khan said in a press release.

Chicago is the nation’s corruption capital, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Regardless of the Cochran investigation’s results, it’s clear Chicago government is steeped in a culture of corruption.

One might think this would spur an intense response from the mayor’s office as well as from reform-minded aldermen. This has not been the case.

A mere 10 of 50 Chicago alderman bothered showing up to the Chicago Board of Ethics budget hearing Oct. 21.

During the budgeting process, politicians have the opportunity to publicly question city officials charged with keeping corruption in check as those officials justify their budgets. But at the Board of Ethics hearing, aldermen did not ask a single question.

Instead, Alderman Anthony Beale, 9th Ward, played “Go Cubs, Go” from his cellphone in reference to the board’s recent ruling that aldermen cannot accept a face-value ticket offer from the Chicago Cubs organization unless they perform a ceremonial duty at the game.

The hearing was over in less than five minutes.

“It had to be a record,” wrote Daily Line reporter Claudia Morell.

This disregard for serious ethics reform is part of a troubling pattern.

After operating without any local watchdog for months following Khan’s departure in 2015, Chicago City Council in February 2016 passed a watered-down oversight ordinance submitting themselves to Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s ethics oversight.

But not to his auditing powers.

Given that Alderman Ed Burke, 14th Ward, led the charge in weakening that ordinance, many speculated the move was meant to shield the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program – controlled by Burke’s Finance Committee – from close examination.

Until City Council and Mayor Rahm Emanuel get serious about following the city’s ethics ordinance and subjecting themselves to stricter oversight, stories such as Cochran’s will continue making headlines.

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