Alderman Willie Cochran rejects plea deal; headed to trial instead

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Chicago Ald. Willie Cochran returned to court for his federal bribery case.

A prominent Chicago alderman surprised courtroom observers at a Wednesday change-of-plea hearing by turning down a plea agreement in his federal corruption case that his lawyer contends could have meant little to no prison time.

Willie B. Cochran's lawyer informed the judge of his client's decision at the hearing in U.S. District Court in Chicago, where the 65-year-old Democrat had been expected to enter a guilty plea.
RELATED: Cochran pleads not guilty in federal corruption case

After huddling with assistant U.S. prosecutors in a hallway minutes before, defense lawyer Christopher Grohman told Judge Jorge Alonso that plea talks had collapsed and a trial date was now needed. He set one for June 3.

Prosecutors allege Cochran stole at least $30,000 from a charitable fund set up in part to help poor constituents and spent it at casinos and to pay his daughter's college tuition. They also say he demanded cash from an attorney for developers in exchange for taking action in his official capacity.

Cochran stood between his lawyer and prosecutor during the hearing, but did not speak. He declined comment as he left the courthouse.

Grohman spoke to reporters outside court, portraying the offered deal as favorable to his client. He said it required Cochran plead guilty to one fraud count and left open the possibility of no time behind bars.

Asked why Cochran rejected it, Grohman said the alderman "couldn't stomach the idea" of pleading guilty to crimes he didn't believe he committed.

A U.S. attorney's office spokesman declined any comment, including on terms of the proposed agreement.

Rejecting a deal now doesn't mean Cochran can't still cut a deal in the lead up to a trial. In hopes of gaining leverage, defendants sometimes do wait until the last several days before a trial to seal a plea agreement.

The 15-count indictment handed down in 2016 includes bribery and wire fraud counts. A single fraud count carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence. But even if Cochran is convicted at a trial, guidelines would recommend far less time, possibly even probation.

Cochran's case sounds familiar to Chicagoans, who have seen many of their politicians face corruption charges over the years. Since the 1970s, nearly three dozen aldermen have been convicted.
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