By David Kidwell

John Bills, the central figure in a massive corruption scheme at City Hall, was sentenced to 10 years in prison Monday for taking 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.

The sentence came moments after Bills choked up in a packed federal courtroom and apologized for his actions and the shame it brought to his family.

Bills, 55, who rose through City Hall as part of the political patronage army of longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, faced up to 30 years in prison for personally profiting in exchange for helping grow the city's $600 million red-light camera program into the largest in the nation.

The scheme was first exposed by the Chicago Tribune in 2012.

Standing with his hands braced on the lectern, Bills had to stop himself several times when he became emotional as he addressed U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall. He said he is still trying to come to terms with how he threw away a good job that provided for his family and promised a steady pension.

"I lost all of that," Bills said as his wife and children watched from the front row of the courtroom gallery. "It's all gone. It's all gone because I fell at the finish line."

Bills acknowledged in his statement that his "broken moral compass" had caused him to commit "immoral" acts, but he denied being a "power broker or mastermind" of any criminal scheme.

"Your honor, that is not the truth," Bills said. "I was a mid-level manager who was directed by my superiors and given a responsibility that I obviously wasn't prepared for."

Bills said he was unable to navigate what was a "broken city contracting process" and was under "intense pressure to begin and expand" the red light camera program.

Bills said that despite a potentially long prison sentence, his renewed faith in God has helped him realize his life "is not falling apart, it's falling into place."

In handing down the sentence, Kendall called Bills' 10-year corruption scheme "a huge setback for the rule of law in the city of Chicago."

Kendall said corruption erodes the public's trust in government and that it takes years to build it back up.

"It's like an arrow in your quiver -- once you shoot it, it's gone forever," she said.

Prosecutors had argued that Bills deserved at least 10 years in prison, while his lawyer emphasized that Bills' wrongdoing didn't rank with that of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"Mr. Bills is not ex-Gov. Blagojevich," Bills lawyer, Nishay Sanan, said in reference to Blagojevich's 14-year prison term. "He's not selling Senate seats."

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon, who led the prosecution of Bills, urged U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall to send a message with her sentence.

"Chicago officials need to know that if they choose a path of corruption, the end of that path is a prison cell," Fardon said.

The probation office recommended to the judge that Bills be given a 10-year prison term.

A federal jury convicted Bills in January on all 20 counts, including bribery, conspiracy, extortion and fraud after deliberating for only five hours.

Sanan had portrayed Bills his client at trial as a fall guy but provided scant evidence as he tried to spread blame for the conspiracy on a phalanx of well-connected lobbyists and Bills' elected bosses, including such political luminaries as Madigan himself and former Mayor Richard Daley.

But even as Sanan publicly argued before jurors that Madigan and Daley were really to blame, Bills was still quietly standing firm in his refusal to cooperate with federal prosecutors looking to expand their investigation.

Fardon's office has repeatedly asked Bills to finger other potential conspirators in exchange for leniency, according to Sanan, who said the most recent request came soon after Bills' conviction in January.

"It has always been his contention that he has no evidence to offer them," Sanan said.

In its sentencing memorandum, the prosecution team -- led by Fardon himself -- suggested Bills deserved to go to prison for 20 to 30 years based on the massive amount of the bribes, his lack of remorse, violation of public trust and leadership role in the decadelong conspiracy.

"To this day, defendant refuses to acknowledge his culpability, instead continuing to deflect and heave blame on others despite the mountain of evidence introduced at trial against him," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Storino. "Chicago has a long, sad history with public corruption. Bills now stands tall in a long line of greedy officials who have carved that tragic history."

Sanan sought a sentence of three to four years in prison for Bills. In court papers, he argued that Bills was never a leader of the conspiracy and that the size of the scheme should be limited only to the value of those payments and gifts Bills acknowledges accepting, about $42,900, not the more than $2 million in bribes.

During the two-week trial, jurors heard evidence about how Bills rose through the ranks at City Hall as a top Madigan precinct captain and political operative, eventually becoming the No. 2 manager in the Chicago Department of Transportation during then-Mayor Daley's administration.

According to testimony, Bills began scheming almost immediately after he was handed the responsibility of overseeing the red-light camera pilot project, hatching a plot to steer traffic camera contracts to Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., an Arizona-based firm.

Bills manipulated the process to ensure Redflex won the contract, orchestrated votes and met with Daley and Madigan in his efforts to promote the company's agenda. He coached the company's executives before their meetings with other city officials and advised them about which lobbyists to hire, what politicians to court and to whom to make political contributions.

In return, Redflex showered Bills with more than $560,000 in cash bribes, including up to $2,000 for each of the 384 red-light cameras installed under his watch. The company also lavished hundreds of thousands of dollars more in gifts -- including car, a condominium, lavish hotel stays and vacations.

All the while, Bills was working to expand the program to include speed and school bus cameras, all in an effort to sweeten his own deal, according to testimony at the trial.

When Bills retired from the city in 2011, he went to work in Chicago for a Redflex consultant, Greg Goldner, a former campaign manager to both Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. According to testimony, Redflex was paying Goldner to keep Bills on the payroll.

The decadelong conspiracy began to crumble in 2012 when the Tribune began publishing reports about Bills' cozy relationship with Redflex. The scandal that followed has now prompted four criminal convictions, a half-dozen lawsuits, ongoing criminal investigations of Redflex practices throughout the U.S. and in Australia, the headquarters of its parent company, Redflex Holdings.

Karen Finley, the former Redflex chief executive officer, pleaded guilty to her role in the conspiracy and testified for the government at Bills' trial. She is set to be sentenced in November. Martin O'Malley, a former Chicago consultant for Redflex who testified that he acted as Bills' bagman, is set to be sentenced next month.

Redflex stock, once traded on the Australian exchange for more than $3 per share, was listed at 26 cents last week. The company, once an industry leader in automated camera enforcement, has all but abandoned its red-light camera business in the U.S. and dismissed much of its workforce.

Meanwhile, the Emanuel administration is trying to restore public trust in a corrupt program beset by questions over its unfair enforcement practices, mismanagement, failed oversight and dubious safety claims. Emanuel has appointed a team of experts -- led by officials at the Northwestern University Transportation Center -- to investigate the program and offer reforms.

As part of its four-year investigation, the Tribune found tens of thousands of tickets being issued unfairly under the program, as well as many cameras likely causing more accidents than they are preventing.

Scientists from Texas A&M University, using data collected by the Tribune, found that up to 40 percent of the cameras Bills was bribed to install are making intersections more dangerous. While the cameras were responsible for a 22 percent increase in rear-end accidents involving injuries, the corresponding reduction in T-bone crashes at those intersections is negligible, the study found.

Yet the Emanuel administration has refused to remove most of those cameras, undermining its long-standing contention that the cameras were more about safety than revenue.

(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune