Ex-city alderman uses clever logic in effort to avoid prison

Former Chicago Ald. Willie Cochran will be sentenced next week.

After admitting helping himself to the proceeds of a donors’ fund earmarked for ward activities, Cochran asked the court for the proverbial wrist slap (six months’ home confinement), rather than the 12 to 18 months in prison indicated under federal sentencing guidelines.

Fittingly, among the improper aldermanic purchases with monies meant to benefit the citizens of the 20th Ward was a CD titled “Call Me Irresponsible.”

By Cochran’s own count, he is the 35th alderman to get indicted, yet few public corruption defendants before him have sought to avoid the federal penitentiary on more memorable grounds.

“Putting people in jail,” Cochran asserted through his defense counsel, “even public officials, simply has no deterrent effect.” As proof, he cited no empirical studies, statistical analyses or scientific research. He did, however, offer an anecdotal reference.

In his sentencing memo, the thrice-elected 20th Ward alderman pointed to his 34 indicted predecessors and reasoned that if imposing prison time on them didn’t “curb Chicago’s tidal wave of aldermanic corruption cases,” then there was “no reason to think” putting him behind bars would.

Deterring public corruption may be a “laudable goal,” according to Cochran, but prison sentences are ineffective. Just look at the recent indictment against longtime Ald. Ed Burke which, Cochran insists, further shows that locking up one corrupt official will not even slow down another.

Three immediate responses to this “jail doesn’t deter aldermen” argument leap to mind:

First, it is the argument, not the threat of imprisonment, that proves ineffective. Cigarette manufacturers warn of their product’s health dangers on every pack sold, yet millions continue smoking. Following the ex-alderman’s logic, the warnings of tobacco’s dangers must therefore serve no deterrent purpose.

So too with speed bumps on residential streets, which many drivers proceed over without slowing down. Cochran would have those bumps flattened over since they failed to slow every car.

And why do retailers bother with security guards, cameras, mirrors or sensors to fight shoplifting? Losses continue, and even increase of late. If Cochran avoids prison time, perhaps he’ll use his new lease on life to counsel merchants against seeking to deter a crime that will plainly persist.

Second, neither U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso, who will shortly determine Cochran’s fate, nor virtually any other citizen fails to understand that considerations of deterrence are but one factor at sentencing.

The primary consideration is meting out fair punishment, here for treating a fund intended, in part, to benefit underprivileged constituents as an elected official’s personal piggy bank. And concepts of fair punishment seem irreconcilable with Cochran’s whimsical bid for home confinement.

If that sounds callous, consider the underlying charges.

According to the December 2016 federal indictment, the former alderman accepted bribes, including from an unnamed attorney representing a developer seeking funds from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a federal provider of grants to purchase and redevelop neglected or foreclosed homes.

Cochran was charged with writing letters in support of the developer, leading the city organization administering the program to disburse funds and receiving a check from the developer in return.

Another scheme involved Cochran sponsoring an amendment to the city’s Municipal Code to enable the sale of a liquor store in his ward, where the buyer could not otherwise obtain the necessary packaged goods license. After Cochran got his amendment through the city council, the indictment charges him with accepting a $3,000 payout.

In their recently filed sentencing memo, federal prosecutors also noted that Cochran pressured a pediatric medical center for children receiving public aid and other businesses to contribute to his fund and then used their donations for his own use.

The most glaring and extensive fraud in the indictment, and the only one he ultimately pleaded to, involved his 20th Ward Activities Fund.

Cochran told local businesses and other donors the fund would be used for ward events, including holiday parties for seniors and a back-to-school picnic. Certain funds from that account were instead used by Cochran, its sole signatory, to help pay his daughter’s college tuition and to cover tabs at casinos in Indiana.

Among his other purchases identified by federal officials were meals at upscale downtown restaurants, a “fog lamp chrome bumper” for his Mercedes, Z Gallerie items including vases and lamps and some unusual Crate & Barrel objects, such as a “compact juice fountain” and herb scissors.

Third, if Cochran is correct that corruption in the city council has been insufficiently deterred by past prison sentences, then perhaps the sentences imposed on his convicted predecessors were simply too lenient.

This happens to be the view of the government, which called Cochran’s contrary argument “irrational and worthy of derision,” and urged the lesson to be learned from past aldermanic corruption cases is that “much stiffer sentences should be imposed.”

Cochran was originally charged with 15 counts of wire fraud, bribery and extortion, making him eligible for a sentence up to 280 years. When he rejected the same plea deal last November, his counsel reported that “he couldn’t stomach the idea of admitting to something he believes he didn’t do.”

With a June trial date looming, the ex-alderman’s digestive system evidently improved in March, when he copped to the wire fraud charge.

Alonso will now decide whether to keep him safely out of prison or impose a sentence on the “high end of the applicable guidelines range,” as the government’s lawyers suggest.

In recommending an 18-month sentence, the prosecutors noted that whatever motivated Cochran, whether “greed, his daughter’s tuition, a gambling habit — he misused and abused his position as an elected official for his personal gain.”

As well-stated as this is, Michael Bublé may have put it better on his recording of the Sinatra classic that was apparently among Cochran’s purchases with his ill-gotten gains:

“Call me irresponsible/Call me unreliable/Throw in undependable, too/Do my foolish alibis bore you?/Well, I’m not too clever …”

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