Red Light Cameras and Corruption: Ex-Chicago Official Convicted
By David Kidwell and Jason Meisner
In a sweeping victory for federal authorities, a jury wasted little time Tuesday before convicting John Bills on all 20 counts, finding that the former Chicago city official took up to $2 million in bribes and gifts in return for steering tens of millions of dollars in red light camera contracts to an Arizona company.
With his conviction on mail and wire fraud, bribery, extortion, conspiracy and tax fraud charges, Bills faces at least 10 years in prison, and possibly more than 20 years, his attorney said.
A stoic Bills hugged his defense team and his crying wife moments after the verdict. On his way out of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, the former longtime City Hall insider stopped to shake hands with reporters but declined to discuss the outcome.
"John is going to continue to fight for his innocence," said his lawyer, Nishay Sanan. "The fight is not over. The people who are guilty of this know who they are, (but) we don't expect them to come forward."
The verdict comes almost four years after a Tribune investigation began uncovering the bribery scheme in a series of stories over many months.
During closing arguments Monday, Sanan attempted to deflect blame for the massive scheme on a handful of well-connected lobbyists hired by camera vendor Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., saying they funneled the bribes "upstairs" to influence some of Chicago's most powerful elected officials who helped legalize and expand the red light and speed camera programs.
U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon, who had scoffed during his own closing argument at Sanan's dramatic allegations as "malarkey," vowed after the verdict that his office would continue to ferret out corruption.
"Public corruption is a disease, it is a cancer, it is insidious," he said. "... At the end of the day the taxpayers of the city of Chicago deserve an honest day for an honest dollar from their public servants."
Jurors took less than five hours to convict Bills, 54, of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and lavish gifts from Redflex executives in return for steering more than $130 million in business to the company over the decadelong scheme.
The conviction further undercuts City Hall's long contention that the lucrative program was designed to promote safety and not revenue.
A study by the Tribune -- which first exposed the scandal in 2012 -- showed last year that nearly half the red light cameras have resulted in no reduction in dangerous T-bone crashes and likely are making intersections more dangerous because of an increase in rear-end crashes as people stop short to avoid a ticket.
Most of those cameras are still up and running, even though the Emanuel administration has promised reforms. During his re-election bid last spring, Emanuel ordered some 80 cameras taken down.
"We've made changes in the firm and in the operations for that contract," Emanuel told reporters Monday. "It still plays a role in safety on our streets as it relates to side crashes, that data's pretty clear."
While many jurors leaving the courthouse Tuesday declined to comment about their deliberations, one juror said that while the evidence against Bills was plentiful, the trial raised as many questions as it answered.
"Where else does it lead, you have to wonder," said Michael Woerner, 63, a former Hinsdale village president. "There's got to be somebody above him. Why didn't he cut a deal? That was the big question."
Woerner, who lives in Burr Ridge, said those questions and others bubbled to the surface at times during deliberations.
"But every time somebody started to talk about it, somebody else would say, 'We have a lot of work to do, let's get to it,'" he said.
Jurors sifted through the evidence on each of the 20 counts, one by one, according to Woerner.
"It smelled," he said. "We all felt the same way, that we knew what the end result would be, but we had to go through all the evidence and make sure they proved the case on each count. All of the 12 of us were on the same page, and we all got along."
Jurors didn't like that prosecutors relied so heavily on three key witnesses who had won deals, Woerner said, but emails, bank records and other witnesses buttressed their testimony.
"You wished there was a smoking gun, a picture of someone handing him the cash, and there wasn't," Woerner said. "But it was so close to that."
During the two-week trial, Fardon and his team presented evidence that Bills advised Redflex about which well-connected lobbyists to hire, what politicians to court, where to make contributions and how to navigate the political intrigue at City Hall. Evidence also showed that Bills met with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan in his efforts to promote the company's agenda.
But prosecutors never called a single one of the high-priced lobbyists hired by Redflex, let alone any of the politicians who they alleged met with Bills to discuss the program's expansion.
"Whether it's the Chicago Way or not -- and I love the city of Chicago -- I don't think corruption is unique to Chicago," Fardon told a scrum of reporters, cameramen and photographers in the courthouse lobby after the verdict. "I think it's important that law enforcement be there to make sure there is accountability where the public's trust is violated."
Sanan said Bills' sentence could depend on whether he's tagged for the total amount of the bribes or -- worse for him -- the total amount of the Redflex contracts.
U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall set his sentencing for May 5. Bills remains free on bond.
The lifelong resident of Chicago's South Side worked for the city for 32 years, rising from a street lamp repairman to the $139,000-a-year managing deputy commissioner in the city's Department of Transportation.
He was also a top-earning lieutenant in Madigan's powerful patronage army, serving as a top precinct captain for more than two decades, much of which he spent as a supervisor in the city's Bureau of Electricity, long known as "Madigan Electric" because of the number of patronage workers loyal to Madigan's 13th Ward political organization.
Bills worked campaigns for Daley and Madigan, getting out the vote and raising political cash for their favored candidates.
According to witnesses and evidence presented at trial, those political connections put Bills in a unique position to manipulate the levers of power and help Redflex to expand its business.
He was convicted of taking nearly $600,000 in cash through a Chicago man hired by Redflex as a consultant. But Martin O'Malley, was really just a bagman who collected more than $2 million in commissions for new cameras installed throughout Chicago. He testified that he met Bills in 2002 at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and applied for the Redflex job at his direction.
According to O'Malley, the commissions would be passed to Bills in an envelope over lunch at such famous Chicago eateries as Manny's Deli, long known as a hot spot for political power lunches.
The O'Malley commissions also went to pay for an Arizona condominium, a speedboat, a Mercedes-Benz, even Bills' June 2011 retirement party when he left the city and soon took a job on Redflex's payroll working with Resolute Consulting. The consulting firm, owned by longtime Chicago political power broker Greg Goldner, was hired by Redflex around the same time the company was pushing to expand its red light cameras to include speed cameras.
Goldner was a former campaign manager for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Daley.
Former Redflex CEO Karen Finley and her top salesman, Aaron Rosenberg, also testified that Redflex paid the tab for hotel stays, rental cars, golf outings and pricey meals for Bills throughout the 10-year relationship.
In exchange, they testified, Bills worked his magic at City Hall, orchestrating votes and meeting with powerful aldermen, Daley and Madigan. He sabotaged potential competitors, allowed Redflex to draft contract provisions and went against the advice of city lawyers to give Redflex the advantages it sought.
But Finley, Rosenberg and O'Malley all turned government informants in exchange for more lenient sentences.
Sanan portrayed each as admitted liars who were framing Bills for a scheme they hatched with their team of Chicago lobbyists and consultants. Among them were Goldner; Michael Kasper, a longtime confidant to Madigan and a lawyer who represented Emanuel in a high-profile residency fight when he first ran for mayor; William Filan, a statehouse lobbyist with longtime ties to Madigan; and William Griffin and Mark Fary, two other lobbyists closely aligned with Daley.
All those names were introduced by prosecutors as part of Redflex's efforts to navigate Illinois politics. In his closing arguments, Sanan told jurors to ask themselves why the well-connected lobbyists and the politicians were never called to testify.
"That money went to lobbyists who funneled it upstairs," he told jurors. "You don't give that kind of money to a guy like John Bills. You give it to people who can get things done."
When it came Fardon's turn to respond, he called Sanan's argument "malarkey," "baloney" and "crazy."
"The idea that lobbyists were paid to funnel money to people like Mike Madigan and Ed Burke and Rahm Emanuel is pretty grandiose," he said, "but there is not one single shred of evidence that supports any of it."
Fardon's team did, however, offer evidence that Bills counseled Redflex executives on what lobbyists to hire in order to court favor with Daley and Madigan. In addition, they said Bills ordered O'Malley to use bribe money to contribute a total of $5,500 to Madigan's political war chest as well as to a nonprofit foundation supported by the mayor.
Rosenberg testified under a grant of immunity from prosecution, while Finley and O'Malley have both pleaded guilty for their roles in the conspiracy. Finley also pleaded guilty to a similar, but smaller bribery scheme in Columbus, Ohio, in which she admitted the company hired lobbyists as a conduit for bribes to elected officials.
Finley and O'Malley testified they expect sentences of less than five years in prison each because of their cooperation.
"He doesn't want to die in jail," Sanan said of O'Malley, 75, in closing arguments. "Nor does he want to implicate the well-oiled machine of Chicago. He was a salesman before, he's a salesman now, and he's trying to sell you a load."
Sanan argued that Bills' frequent use of cash came from his lucrative side business selling sports tickets and memorabilia, not from any bribery scheme.
Woerner, the juror, said that admission made jurors' job on the tax fraud counts "a slam dunk."
"Those were the easiest counts of all," he said. "He reported none of that income."
Woerner acknowledged he had hoped his political experience as Hinsdale village president would keep him off the jury. But those feelings changed after he was picked.
"I was very surprised when I was selected," he said. "That's why I brought it up, hoping that it would keep me off the jury. But in the end it was a very rewarding experience.
"There's clearly a lot of corruption going on in the city of Chicago, and that's why we were there," he said. "We hope this sends a message, but it really hasn't happened yet, has it?"
Woerner was the only juror who agreed to be interviewed. Others declined to speak or could not be reached Tuesday.
In the courthouse lobby, Woerner was asked by a television reporter about what he took away from the experience.
"Big picture?" said Woerner, a half-dozen microphones in his face. "Nationally we see a lot of the corruption exposed by reporters, and in this case it was the Chicago Tribune. And at the same time, you see all these cuts at newspapers and you wonder, after they are all gone who will be left to look for it?"
Chicago Tribune's John Byrne contributed.
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