Exposing insider politics of red-light cameras is aim of Illinois bill

Exposing insider politics of red-light cameras is aim of Illinois bill

After paying $1 billion in red-light camera fees, Illinoisans deserve to know more about how the devices are being pushed with their local political leaders.

Red-light cameras took more than $1 billion from Illinois drivers in a decade. Promotion of the cameras was linked to federal corruption indictments public officials in the past year.

Uncovering those who are paid to push speed and red-light traffic cameras with local politicians is the intent of House Bill 129, sponsored by state Rep. Joyce Mason, D-Gurnee.  It would amend the Lobbyist Registration Act so anyone paid to influence adoption of the automated traffic devices by a local government would need to register as a lobbyist.

Chicago is home to the nation’s highest count of red-light cameras and their use in the municipalities outside the city nearly tripled between 2008 and 2018, a period when the devices collected over $1 billion in tickets. The widespread adoption of these cameras has been linked to a pay-to-play system of state and local officials lobbying municipalities on behalf of red-light camera company SafeSpeed LLC.

Among indicted officials tied to the red-light company are the late state Sen. Martin Sandoval, who pleaded guilty to taking $250,000 in bribes and was cooperating with federal investigators before he passed away in December from COVID-19. Sandoval testified that he accepted bribes to serve as SafeSpeed’s protector in the state Senate, but at least $70,000 was supplied by the government and paid through a SafeSpeed representative working with investigators.

HB 129 would provide protections for taxpayers by identifying agents of automated traffic camera companies. Knowing the players offers some protection against under-the-table deals with public servants who decide their implementation. Specifically, it would require any person, or entity, attempting to influencing local governments concerning automated traffic law enforcement systems, such as speed or red-light cameras, to register as a lobbyist.

Crestwood Mayor Lou Presta was the most recent politician indicted under the federal investigation into how bribes and political influence were used to spread red-light camera adoption. Presta was charged with receiving a $5,000 bribe from a SafeSpeed representative to install eight cameras in his village of 10,000. After just three years of use, Crestwood had collected more than $13 million in red-light camera fines.

At the same time, Patrick Doherty, chief of staff for a Cook County commissioner, and former IDOT official Bill Helm were employed as sales consultants by SafeSpeed to secure contracts with Chicago suburbs. They, too, were indicted on counts of bribery, but the Helm indictment was related to a road project and not the cameras.

Helm received a commission from red-light camera fees collected in Matteson and Glendale Heights, where he had secured contracts. Leaders in both cities said they didn’t know who Helm was.

Public leaders proclaim red-light and speed cameras are about safety. But studies and the significant amount of fines generated show they are about cash rather than collisions.

A 2017 report by the Chicago Tribune found over half of the intersections at which IDOT approved cameras were among the safest in the state, according to the department’s own study. Many permits were also given to intersections that had no red-light camera crashes in the previous three years.

The latest push by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also includes a claim of safety, but the lower speed camera settings that charge drivers $35 for driving 6-10 mph above the limit stand to generate $95.5 million this year. The lowered speeding tolerance and higher fines came as Lightfoot was working to fill a $1.2 billion budget deficit.

HB 129 might not go as far as the multiple bans state lawmakers have tried to pass in Illinois, but at least residents will know who is trying to sway whom to put traffic cameras in their community. Even if that protection is approved, the devices will remain a corrupting influence on Illinois politicians who have been too willing to embrace them and the riches they bring – both legally and illegally.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story failed to state the late state Sen. Martin Sandoval was bribed using government money paid through a SafeSpeed LLC representative who was aiding investigators. It incorrectly stated Sandoval received money directly from SafeSpeed. Also, former IDOT administrator Bill Helm’s bribery charge was related to a road project, and not to his functions as a representative of SafeSpeed LLC.

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