Crestwood mayor charged in red-light camera bribery scheme

Crestwood mayor charged in red-light camera bribery scheme

Multiple officials in the southwest suburbs have been implicated on criminal charges in a federal investigation into red-light cameras.

Crestwood Mayor Lou Presta was indicted on corruption charges, the latest in a far-reaching federal investigation into how bribes and political influence were used to spread the red-light ticket cameras that have collected over $1 billion from Illinois drivers.

Presta is charged with seeking bribes from camera vendor SafeSpeed and receiving an envelope with $5,000, according to the Chicago Tribune. He faces three counts of using a facility of interstate commerce to aid a bribe and official misconduct, two counts of filing false income taxes, one count of failing to file income taxes and one count of lying to the FBI and IRS.

SafeSpeed began donating to Presta’s failed campaign for Cook County Board immediately after Presta signed off on a contract for cameras in his village in 2014. He also accepted the envelope with a $5,000 bribe from the company, provided by former SafeSpeed partner Omar Maani. Maani worked closely with Presta to get him donations and cash and is now cooperating with federal investigators.

Crestwood has about 10,000 residents, but between installation in 2016 until June 2019 their eight SafeSpeed cameras brought in over $13 million, according to an investigation by the Illinois Policy Institute. A Tribune investigation found SafeSpeed cameras at the intersection of Cicero Avenue and Cal Sag Road were bringing in $8,000 a day in revenue, almost all from people who rolled through the intersection to make a right on red.

SafeSpeed owners have denied wrongdoing, saying they were unaware of the bribes. They have distanced themselves from Maani, who helped found the company.

Interest into Presta’s relationship with SafeSpeed began at the same time former state Sen. Martin Sandoval had his offices raided as investigators pursued bribery charges on the former chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. Presta was interviewed by the FBI and IRS in September 2019 and denied accepting any bribes from SafeSpeed.

Sandoval pleaded guilty to taking $250,000 in bribes to protect SafeSpeed in the Ilinois Senate, as well as filing a false tax return. Sandoval worked closely with the company to block legislation that would threaten red-light traffic cameras. Sandoval also agreed to cooperate with federal investigators in an escalating probe into Illinois political corruption.

Other suburban Cook County officials have also been hit with charges thanks to their relationship with SafeSpeed, which has cameras in over 30 municipalities. Cook County Commissioner Jeffery Tobolski resigned on March 6 after his chief of staff, Patrick Doherty, was hit with bribery charges for allegedly paying a $4,000 bribe to get SafeSpeed’s cameras installed in Oakbrook Terrace. Bill Helm, a former top Illinois Department of Transportation official, was charged on March 5 with allegedly paying a bribe to Sandoval to get his support for a construction project. Helm and Doherty were also sales representatives for SafeSpeed.

The federal corruption investigation did not stop SafeSpeed from receiving a federal loan between $1 million and $2 million from the Paycheck Protection Program. The Chicago-based company is the largest red-light camera vendor in Illinois. It received the loan April 4 to retain 39 employees, according to the federal data.

Red-light cameras collected over $1 billion from Illinois drivers between 2008 and 2018, according to a study by the Illinois Policy Institute. Their inability to improve safety has long been established.

Significant progress was made this spring in the General Assembly toward banning red-light cameras until COVID-19 suspended the legislative session. The House passed a ban in non-home rule communities while other bills creating broader bans were successfully passed out of committee.

Banning red-light cameras would be one way for state lawmakers to show Illinoisans they are breaking with corruption, but state leaders remain a long way from deserving the public’s trust. Sandoval, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan all face separate federal corruption investigations, yet all three have been instrumental in pushing voters on Nov. 3 to entrust state lawmakers with greater authority to determine who is taxed how much through their “fair tax” proposal – a power and faith made more foolish by each corruption headline.

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