During the last city council meeting of 2016, as Chicago’s aldermen gathered with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts to celebrate the Cubs’ recent World Series victory, the room received word that Willie Cochran, the alderman serving the 20th Ward, had been indicted. On hearing the news, Cochran sat quietly through more than an hour of praise for the Cubs, checking his phone and talking to a few aldermen. He escaped the room during the end-of-meeting applause as the press rushed to head him off. Chicago’s longest-serving alderman, Ed Burke, who has been on the city council since 1969, told the Tribune that he had never seen another alderman indicted during a council meeting.

Cochran faces eleven counts of wire fraud, two counts of extortion, and two counts of bribery. His alleged crimes include using charity funds meant for ward events for personal use and accepting bribes in exchange for changing zoning ordinances, among others. Cochran has said that he will not step down and will continue to serve the 20th Ward, raising questions about how his indictment will affect his constituents, and where it places him, guilty or not, in Chicago’s history.

Cochran’s attorney, Anthony Durkin, has characterized Cochran’s actions as “stupid or careless,” but he argues that since the charity funds Cochran is accused of taking had no restrictions on their use, Cochran’s use of those funds was not illegal. It should be noted, however, that Cochran is facing federal charges and, according to Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and former alderman, the federal government usually only pursues an indictment with strong evidence. In the past, every Chicago alderman who has been indicted has either been convicted or died before the end of the trial.

The 20th Ward has endured a long history of corruption from its aldermen. Cochran is the third of the past four aldermen from the ward to be indicted. In 2009, Arenda Troutman was convicted of accepting bribes from developers for zoning changes, and Cliff Kelley was convicted in 1986 for bribery and tax evasion.

The 20th Ward is hardly the only ward in Chicago with a history of corruption, however; if Cochran is convicted, he would join more than thirty other aldermen who have been convicted on corruption charges since 1972—out of around a hundred who served between 1972 and 2012. According to a 2015 UIC report co-authored by Simpson, Illinois ranks third in corruption convictions per capita among states with the most convictions, after only the District of Columbia and Louisiana, and four of the past seven governors have been convicted on corruption charges. Meanwhile, the Chicago judicial district has the most total convictions for corruption of any major city. Between 1976, when the Justice Department started compiling statistics, and 2013, Chicago accumulated 1,642 convictions related to corruption.

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To understand corruption in Chicago, and the effects that Cochran’s indictment might have, it is important to understand what aldermen do. There are fifty aldermen, one to represent each of the city’s wards, and they are elected to four-year terms. As members of Chicago’s city council, the city’s legislative body, they attend monthly city council meetings, vote on ordinances and other issues like certain mayoral appointees, and sit on various committees within the council. Cochran, for example, serves as vice chair of public safety and sits on the finance and aviation committees, among others.

A significant part of aldermen’s work is handling local constituents’ concerns about things like garbage pickup, road repair, and parking. They also have almost complete control over zoning in their ward. While there is a City Council zoning committee, it rarely overrules aldermen on zoning within their own wards.

This control of zoning often acts as a channel for receiving bribes. Of the aldermen convicted of corruption since 1972, twenty-six of them faced charges related to their control of zoning, including convictions for bribery, extortion, conspiracy, and other attempts to control or make money from those seeking to do business in their ward. Though this might suggest that the zoning system is the source of Chicago’s unusual amount of corruption, Simpson argues that it is simply a convenient conduit for a corruption driven chiefly by “machine politics, patronage, and the need to raise campaign money.”

In pointing to machine culture and patronage, Simpson frames today’s corruption within a long tradition of corruption in Chicago politics. In the late nineteenth century, politicians in Chicago exchanged contracts, jobs, and social services for votes, forming relationships with the city’s large immigrant populations. Italians were given transit jobs, for example, while the Irish were given spots in the police. Since 1931, when the last Republican mayor of Chicago left office, Democrats have enjoyed a political monopoly, which for a time ramped up their control and ability reward their supporters. Richard J. Daley, who served as mayor from 1955 up until his death in 1976, controlled an estimated 35,000 patronage jobs, which helped him maintain discipline in the Democratic Party. Court cases in the 1970s, however, severely reduced the ability of the political machine to control patronage jobs. This coincided with increasing dissatisfaction with the efficiency of city government and diminishing support for the machine from African-American voters, and Harold Washington’s defeat of the machine-affiliated candidates for the Democratic nomination in 1983 and election to mayor led to the end of that iteration of machine politics. However, some of the remnants of that political culture still remain.

Simpson and his colleagues have suggested several policies that could continue to reduce corruption in Chicago, including public financing of elections and strengthening the power of the inspector general. One recent piece of progress that Simpson highlighted was the signing of a law that requires high school students in Illinois to take one semester of civics. He described this as a step forward, but he also said Chicago has a long way to go in improving the current political culture.

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As the federal case against Cochran continues, the alderman and his staff need to continue to provide services for the 20th Ward’s residents and organizations. Chicago has no laws that prevent an alderman from continuing to serve during the indictment process; currently, only conviction constitutes a resignation for an alderman. Even so, dealing with an indictment must necessarily take up a great deal of time, raising the question of how ward services might be affected during this period of split attention. Cochran’s office declined to comment on this story, so it is difficult to assess what he is doing to manage the challenge.

Jasmine Mithani
Jasmine Mithani

Simpson, when asked how well Cochran could continue to handle his duties as alderman during the indictment, said, “Depending on what you think of [Cochran] as an alderman, he will be as effective as he was before the indictment. He may get sidetracked having to prepare his defense and may have to pay less attention to services in the ward, but he still has the same vote in the city council, still has the same friends in the city council. I assume he has staff on hand to service complaints.”

The Weekly spoke to a number of organizations based in the 20th Ward to determine whether they had been affected by the indictment in any way, including the KLEO Center, a nonprofit that provides various educational, counseling, and violence reduction programs in the service of their mission of “building a safe haven through education, public safety, health and human services, and economic development.” Executive Director Torrey L. Barrett said that though the organization had collaborated with Cochran and his office on a mobile food pantry and back-to-school events in the past, it was not currently working with the alderman’s office, and he did not think the indictment would affect their ability to provide services to residents.

Mattie Butler, executive director at Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors (WECAN), a nonprofit working on multiple projects including advocating for the homeless and near homeless, said she was deeply saddened by Cochran’s indictment. While WECAN is not currently collaborating with the alderman’s office, Butler said that in the past WECAN’s association with the alderman had been useful; the alderman’s good name had helped open doors for the organization and allowed it to more effectively accomplish its goals. With the indictment, she said, “I won’t be able to go to him for support…if there is something I want to do in the community.”

Butler also highlighted the negative effects of the uncertainty the indictment has caused. “We don’t know how long this is going to last, and what the outcome will be,” she said. “That puts us all in a nervous position, a nervous place.” Still, while continuing to emphasize how unfortunate the situation was, she also acknowledged, echoing Simpson, that “he still is the sitting alderman, so he has the power of that seat. So he will often be able to supply what he [was] supplying before.”

Cochran pled not guilty at his arraignment hearing on December 23. He now faces a potentially lengthy pre-trial process. As this process unfolds, the 20th Ward will wait and see how well their alderman can balance his duties and his indictment.

Correction, April 2, 2017:

The text of the first infographic has been updated to reflect that approximately one hundred aldermen have served between 1972 and 2012, not only one hundred aldermen. 

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