Crooked judge eludes another conviction 12/31/05 column
University of Illinois basketball star Dee Brown might be a one-man fast break at the Assembly Hall, but former Cumberland County Circuit Judge Robert Cochonour showed again this week that when he gets in court he has some pretty slick moves of his own.
Cochonour slipped another legal noose when he was acquitted of a forgery charge, even though he admitted signing the name of an elderly woman to documents authorizing an $89,000 bank loan.
In rendering a verdict of not guilty, Sangamon County Circuit Judge Robert Eggers, who heard the case Tuesday without a jury, ruled that because he could not find any tangible benefit that accrued to Cochonour for falsely signing the name of Martha Hayden to the promissory note there was no crime.
"There isn't anything to indicate (that) there were any monies here being funneled to the defendant," said Eggers, who presided over a one-day trial at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Toledo.
Eggers' ruling represents the latest twist in a bizarre legal saga that began in 2002, when then-Circuit Judge Robert Cochonour was linked to the looting of the multimillion-dollar estate of Jay Hayden, a successful Greenup businessman. Since then, Cochonour was convicted of the theft of more than $100,000 from the Hayden estate and hit with a $5-million-plus civil judgment stemming from his misappropriation of Jay Hayden estate assets.
He also was linked to the questionable transfers of large sums of money from four elderly women, all now deceased. But both the Illinois attorney general's office and federal prosecutors have ignored those transactions, and the attorney general's office allowed Cochonour to keep his judicial pension.
In the face of this remarkable forbearance by Attorney General Lisa Madigan and federal prosecutors in the central and southern districts of the state, the only sanctions imposed on Cochonour were an 11-month prison stay, a stint on work release during which he was employed by a church and a brief period of incarceration in jail on a civil contempt of court charge for refusing to answer questions about what he did with the stolen money he transferred to family horse, oil and real estate businesses.
No one associated with him has been charged with any offense, even though prosecutors from the attorney general's office have spoken publicly about pursuing Cochonour's two brothers, Joe and Don. The Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission recently alleged improprieties against Toledo lawyer John Cutright, the lawyer Cochonour used to write the wills of elderly women in which Cochonour benefited.
The forgery charge against Cochonour stemmed from his involvement with the finances of Martha Hayden, Jay Hayden's elderly mother who died in December 2001. She had been in ill health for years and Cochonour, despite having no written document authorizing him to do so, took over her finances. At the same time, he was stealing from her son's estate.
Ironically, the forgery case tried this week involved one of the few times that Cochonour delved into the Hayden family fortune in which he did not gain financially.
Martha Hayden co-owned with Frank Rook a grocery store in Greenup that was destroyed by a fire in 2000. Even though an insurance company eventually settled the claim, it initially refused to do so, forcing Rook and Martha Hayden to seek a bank loan to rebuild the business. Since Martha Hayden was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Rook brought bank documents authorizing an $89,000 loan to Cochonour, who signed Martha Hayden's name. The money was used to restart the grocery store.
Even though Cochonour received none of the loan proceeds, Cumberland County State's Attorney Barry Schaefer contended it was forgery because Cochonour had no legal authority to handle Martha Hayden's affairs. Left unmentioned was that if Cochonour had not signed either his name as power of attorney or her name to the loan document, it would have required him to risk discovery of his thefts from Jay Hayden's estate and questionable transfers from Martha Hayden's finances of more than $500,000.
Illinois law required Schaefer to show that Cochonour signed Martha Hayden's name, that he did so to defraud and that the documents in question could be used for fraudulent purposes. Schaefer said the fact that the loan proceeds went to the business was "the biggest hole I had in my case," but that Cochonour clearly signed her name for a nefarious purpose and that should have been enough to sustain a guilty verdict.
Eggers found, however, that the legal record was "devoid" of what he called "self-dealing" by Cochonour.
Interestingly, in a pretrial document Cochonour lawyer, Rich Halprin of Chicago, freely admitted his client signed Martha Hayden's name and asserted that he had broad legal authority to do so. Halprin said Cochonour could obligate Martha Hayden to large bank loans because "he was, as a matter of law, her fiduciary" as a result of enjoying her "trust and confidence."
Prosecutor Schaefer acknowledged after the trial that he was "licking his wounds" from a stinging defeat but said he will "continue to look at allegations" of other forgeries.
Naperville lawyer Fred Roth, one of the civil lawyers pursuing Cochonour, noted that Eggers' decision represents "one forgery case" and he said there are other forgeries in which Cochonour benefited substantially at the expense of Martha Hayden. "All of the concerns of Judge Eggers will be more than addressed," Roth said.
He noted that $188,000 bequeathed to Martha Hayden by her son ended up in a Cochonour investment account and that Cochonour used it to purchase gold coins. Roth also noted that Cochonour cashed in $312,000 of Martha Hayden's certificates of deposit at the First National Bank of Toledo and used the money to settle a family debt with a bank in Houston.
"That's a pretty direct benefit," Roth said.
Still, Cochonour, at least for now, is sitting pretty. Despite receiving a lucrative pension, he's refused to pay any of the civil judgment against him because he claims he has no money, has purged himself of civil contempt by responding to questions about his assets and no longer has to answer to state prison officials.