Bribery charge, resignations hit prominent players in red-light camera scandal
A Cook County commissioner quits as a former city administrator faces a bribery charge. Both played roles in the rise of red-light cameras and vendor SafeSpeed.
Two figures linked to the red-light camera scandal made headlines this week: one by resigning as a Cook County commissioner and suburban mayor, the other by facing bribery charges.
Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski submitted his resignation letter to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on March 6. In the one-sentence letter, Tobolski stated he would leave office on March 31. He also resigned March 6 as mayor of suburban McCook, also effective on March 31.
On March 5 the former deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation and former top Illinois Department of Transportation official, Bill Helm, was charged with one count of bribery, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Both Helm and Tobolski have been tied to former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, who pleaded guilty to federal bribery and tax fraud charges in January. Sandoval took $250,000 in bribes from SafeSpeed LLC. as the red-light traffic camera company’s protector in the Senate and to help ensure the company was able to install red-light traffic cameras in Chicago suburbs.
Sandoval’s offices were raided by FBI and IRS agents last September as federal agents zeroed in on the former state senator’s relationship with red-light camera vendor SafeSpeed along with other projects he oversaw as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Just days later, agents raided village offices in McCook, where Tobolski served as mayor. On Feb. 14, Tobolski’s county chief of staff, Patrick Doherty, was charged with three counts of bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery. Doherty served as a sales representative for SafeSpeed and helped get cameras installed in Oak Lawn by allegedly paying a $4,000 bribe.
Like Doherty, Helm also worked as a sales representative for SafeSpeed. In this role, he received a commission from red-light camera fees collected in Matteson and Glendale Heights. Both cities have said they have no knowledge as to who he is. While Glendale Heights no longer contracts with SafeSpeed, Helm received $4,156 in July 2019 from tickets in Matteson. Matteson has collected $5.6 million since installing cameras in 2016, according to data obtained through Freedom of Information requests by the Illinois Policy Institute.
Helm’s indictment alleges he paid off Sandoval on behalf of a suburban construction company to get his support for a state road project in East Dundee. Helm paid Sandoval at least $5,000 between July 2018 and November 2018. It is unclear which construction company Helm was working for. He owns WAH Consulting LLC in Schaumburg.
Helm has a history of trouble at his places of work. He resigned his job with IDOT in 2014 after being disciplined for misusing state time and resources, including using his state vehicle on a Sunday. He was caught by a red-light traffic camera in Chicago. He left his job with the Chicago Department of Aviation after a lawsuit claimed he was pressuring airport employees to do political work.
Red-light cameras have long been a source of corruption, in 2016 sending a top Chicago administrator and an executive from Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. to federal prison. They also have taken significant amounts from drivers. An Illinois Policy Institute investigation found red-light cameras collected more than $1 billion in fines from Illinois drivers between 2008 and 2018, despite producing no significant gains in traffic safety.
In fact, a study done by Oak Brook’s police chief found the cameras have actually caused more crashes in neighboring Oakbrook Terrace at the intersection where Sandoval worked to have them installed, according to the Tribune. There were only 23 crashes at the intersection of Route 83 and 22nd Street in 2015. When the cameras came to life in 2017, the number of crashes rose to 36 and then to 49 in 2019. Rear-end crashes jumped from 14 in 2015 to 41 in 2019, typically from drivers braking hard to avoid tripping the cameras and being hit from behind. The cameras have generated $9 million for Oakbrook Terrace in their two years of operation.
The call to abolish red-light cameras is louder than ever, and state lawmakers appear to be listening. A partial ban, House Bill 322, passed the Illinois House and is now in the Senate. A full ban, House Bill 323, recently passed out of the House Rules committee after languishing for more than a year and is now before the House Transportation: Vehicles and Safety Committee.
Illinois lawmakers are right to ban the devices and undo the corruption their former colleague worked so hard to inflict on the state’s drivers.