South Side Ald. Willie Cochran faces a federal criminal investigation into whether he improperly used campaign funds for personal expenses, say sources with knowledge of the probe.
The full scope of what a grand jury is looking into was not immediately known, but state records show the 20th Ward alderman has made dozens of revisions to his campaign reports over the past two years, often to show he had paid himself with campaign funds months earlier.
While the sources said the probe focuses on Cochran’s alleged misuse of campaign contributions, a real estate developer told the Tribune on Tuesday that the FBI had questioned him about a donation to Cochran for a scholarship fund the alderman supports.
“I’ll tell you the same thing I told them,” said the developer, who asked for anonymity. “I gave him a check, I think it was for a couple hundred dollars. … What he did with it, I have no clue.”
Asked about the investigation by the Tribune, Cochran, 64, denied any wrongdoing or that he had been approached by investigators. His tax and campaign records are in order, he said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the existence of an investigation. Such grand jury probes are kept secret by law.
Court records hint at recent financial troubles for Cochran — he has been the target of three foreclosure lawsuits over his personal home and laundry businesses he held a financial stake in.
Cochran has paid himself more than $131,000 out of his campaign fund, nearly all of it since he won a second term in 2011, according to state campaign records.
Those records show Cochran has filed an unusually large number of revisions — 70 — to his campaign finance paperwork from January 2015 through July 2016. Over the previous eight years, Cochran had filed only six amendments to his campaign records.
In some of the amended campaign finance reports, Cochran revealed he had paid himself out of his campaign fund. In several instances, Cochran did not report those payments until well after he filed his campaign reports with state elections officials — in some cases more than a year or two later.
From 2012 through 2016, Cochran spent $397,574 in campaign funds. About one-third of that — $128,297 to be specific — went to himself, the records show.
It is not against state law for candidates to pay themselves from their campaign fund for working on their own election bid, but it is relatively rare. It’s also unusual for candidates to pay themselves such a high percentage of the contributions.
The developer who says he was questioned by the FBI has not made any personal political contributions to Cochran’s campaign, state election records show. However, three companies associated with the developer have made contributions to the aldermen’s campaign fund totaling $3,500, records show.
Cochran, a former police officer, was elected in 2007 after his predecessor, Ald. Arenda Troutman, was arrested by the FBI on bribery charges alleging she solicited donations from developers seeking to do business in the ward.
After Troutman’s arrest, Cochran called on her to resign, telling the Tribune that “most people in the ward are tired of our public officials being embroiled in one controversy after another.”
Troutman pleaded guilty in 2008 and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Cochran is paid $116,208 a year as alderman and also collects $60,280 annually from his police pension, records show. While many aldermen have rejected annual raises in recent years because of the city’s financial struggles, Cochran has accepted all the raises.
In late 2014, he suggested aldermen should be paid more, saying he often works 60 hours a week or more.
Cochran, who is considered an ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, won a third term in office last year, surviving a tough runoff election against challenger Kevin Bailey.
After his victory, Cochran told reporters he and his wife were going to celebrate by flying to Las Vegas and renting a convertible for a West Coast road trip.
Days later, he was hit with a foreclosure lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court claiming he had defaulted on the $420,000 mortgage on his Woodlawn home, according to court records. He still owed more than $384,000 on the mortgage as of November 2014, records showed.
The foreclosure was dismissed in July 2015 “due to the fact that the loan was reinstated,” court records state.
Records show it was the second time Cochran and his wife had faced foreclosure stemming from the same 2006 loan. A similar lawsuit was filed in 2012 and then dismissed months later after the loan was renegotiated, according to court records.
In 2013, Cochran, who for years owned the Rainbow Brite laundromat on East 63rd Street, was named in a foreclosure lawsuit involving a string of laundromats he had a financial stake in, according to court records. That lawsuit alleged the business owner, Alexander Fletcher, had defaulted on a $1.5 million loan involving several laundromats. It was dismissed in 2014.
According to the biography posted on his ward’s website, Cochran is the youngest of 10 children. He has a master’s degree in public administration from the Illinois Institute of Technology and also has a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Cochran joined the Chicago Police Department in 1977 and served as a patrol officer and sergeant over his 26-year career.
The Chicago City Council has a long, notorious history of corruption. Since 1972, 29 aldermen have been convicted of crimes related to their official duties. The most recent, Isaac “Ike” Carothers, pleaded guilty in 2010 to bribery and tax charges for accepting $40,000 in home improvements for backing a developer’s controversial project in his 29th Ward. His father, William, a former alderman, was convicted 27 years earlier.
Chicago Tribune’s John Byrne and Hal Dardick contributed.