Under pressure on ethics, Illinois lawmakers consider tightened rules on red-light camera industry

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Facing pressure to bolster state ethics laws following the recent federal bribery convictions of former top Commonwealth Edison executives and lobbyists, Illinois lawmakers have turned their attention to another branch of a sprawling corruption investigation: the red-light camera industry.

A measure introduced and approved in the Illinois Senate late Friday seeks to place new ethical guardrails around an industry that has been at the center of multiple federal probes that have ensnared a host of state, county and local officials, including two state senators.

The legislation, which was approved without opposition in the Senate, could come before the House as soon as this week, with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly scheduled to return to the Capitol on Wednesday to finalize a state budget after blowing through its self-imposed deadline last week.

The proposal from Democratic Sen. Laura Murphy of a Des Plaines would bar companies that sell red-light cameras or other automated traffic control devices — along with their owners, large investors, executives, immediate family members and any political action committees created by the companies — from making campaign contributions to state and local candidates and public officials.

“Illinoisans deserve to be able to trust their elected officials aren’t being influenced by campaign contributions,” Murphy said in a statement. “Government officials should serve the people — not their own financial interests.”

Members of the General Assembly as well as county and local officials would be prohibited from going to work for or receiving compensation from red-light camera companies for two years after leaving office, under the legislation. That’s much stronger than a six-month prohibition on state lawmakers becoming lobbyists that just took effect this year.

The Illinois Department of Transportation would be able to revoke a county’s or municipality’s authorization for red-light cameras if a local official or employee is charged with bribery, official misconduct or similar crimes related to the placement of the cameras, and municipalities would no longer be allowed to outsource the issuance of citations to their camera system vendors.

The red-light camera industry has a sordid history in Illinois going back two decades, and a string of state and local officials have been charged with or convicted of crimes related to the industry.

That list includes one of the 55 state legislators who voted last week to approve the new restrictions on the industry, Democratic Sen. Emil Jones III of Chicago.

Jones, son of former Senate President Emil Jones Jr., was charged last year with bribery for allegedly accepting a $5,000 bribe from a red-light camera company executive to block unfavorable legislation and lying to the FBI, prompting Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker to call for his resignation. Jones, who pleaded not guilty last fall, ignored that call and was reelected in an uncontested race in November.

State Sen. Emil Jones III, at the State Capitol in Springfield in December 2011. Jones was charged last year with bribery for allegedly accepting a $5,000 bribe from a red-light camera company executive to block unfavorable legislation and lying to the FBI.

State Sen. Emil Jones III, at the State Capitol in Springfield in December 2011. Jones was charged last year with bribery for allegedly accepting a $5,000 bribe from a red-light camera company executive to block unfavorable legislation and lying to the FBI. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

Federal prosecutors allege Jones took the bribe from Omar Maani, a co-founder of red-light camera company SafeSpeed who was secretly cooperating with the government, and also sought a job for an unnamed associate.

SafeSpeed has repeatedly characterized Maani as a rogue agent and denied knowledge of his illegal activities.

“We, like everyone else in the industry, are very supportive of ethical reforms and have encouraged this type of reform for many years,” SafeSpeed spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney said of the Senate proposal.

The probe that led to the charges against Jones became public in 2019 with a federal raid on the statehouse office of his former Senate colleague Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat. Sandoval pleaded guilty to a bribery charge and agreed to cooperate before dying in late 2020 of COVID-19 complications.

Patrick Doherty, former chief of staff to Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, leaves the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, March 1, 2023, after being sentenced to 64 months in prison for his involvement in bribery schemes with SafeSpeed, a red-light camera company.

Patrick Doherty, former chief of staff to Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, leaves the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, March 1, 2023, after being sentenced to 64 months in prison for his involvement in bribery schemes with SafeSpeed, a red-light camera company. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

The investigation also led to a prison sentence of more than five years for political operative Patrick Doherty, once chief of staff to Jeffrey Tobolski, a former Cook County commissioner and mayor of suburban McCook. Tobolski pleaded guilty to charges related to the probe, and other suburban mayors who’ve been convicted of related charges include Louis Presta of Crestwood and Tony Ragucci of Oakbrook Terrace.

Separately, former Chicago City Hall operative John Bills was sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to steer tens of millions of dollars in red-light camera contracts to an Arizona company, Redflex Traffic Systems. According to testimony at his federal trial, Bills took a cash bribe of up to $2,000 for each of the 384 red-light cameras that were installed while he oversaw the program.

The indictment followed a Chicago Tribune investigation from a few years earlier that exposed a $2 million City Hall bribery scheme that brought traffic cameras to Chicago along with tens of thousands of tickets that were unfairly issued to drivers. The investigation found cameras that malfunctioned, inconsistent enforcement and millions of dollars in tickets issued purposely by City Hall even after officials knew that yellow light times were dropping below the federal minimum guidelines.

A Tribune-sponsored study of the red-light program in 2014 found that nearly 40% of the intersections equipped with the cameras were likely making the streets more dangerous. The study found that the cameras caused a 22% increase in rear-end crashes while providing no safety benefit at intersections that never had a problem with right-angle crashes.

Red-light cameras at Illinois Route 83 and 22nd Street in Oak Brook in 2017.

Red-light cameras at Illinois Route 83 and 22nd Street in Oak Brook in 2017.
(Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune)

Aside from the new ethical guidelines, the new Senate measure also includes provisions that would require municipalities to do a statistical analysis of the cameras’ safety.

The legislation faces potential legal hurdles. Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield and an expert on state campaign finance law, questioned whether the proposed restrictions on campaign contributions would be effective — or constitutional.

“The broad constitutional framework is that contributing or spending money to influence politics is protected political speech under the First Amendment, and so, if you’re going to restrict it, then it has to be narrow,” Redfield said.

Although there’s a record of political corruption in the industry, it is by no means unique, he said, raising the issue of why red-light camera companies would be subjected to restrictions that don’t apply to other state-regulated industries.

“Why is … selling red-light systems inherently more corrupt than people trying to get licenses for cannabis or video poker?” Redfield said.

Even if the measure withstood a legal challenge on First Amendment grounds, there still would be questions about its effectiveness, he said, noting that the companies and their executives could get around the restrictions by donating to independent expenditure committees that are prohibited from coordinating with candidates or possibly even directly to political party fundraising committees.

Still, the measure indicates that lawmakers may be waking up to the undue influence campaign contributions can have, said Alisa Kaplan, executive director of good-government group Reform for Illinois.

“It’s good to see an acknowledgment that campaign contributions can influence public officials in a way that doesn’t always benefit the public interest,” Kaplan said.

The two-year revolving door prohibition for former public officials, including legislators, going to work for red-light camera companies is a positive step and one Kaplan said she’d like to see applied more broadly. But it also reflects the piecemeal approach lawmakers have taken in trying to tighten ethics laws in Springfield, she said.

“These are all so narrowly targeted that they’re a bit easier for legislators to swallow because the likelihood that they’ll affect them is pretty slim,” Kaplan said.

Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner contributed from Springfield.

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

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May 24, 2023 at 05:22AM

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