Federal raids intersect with 4 connected to controversial red-light camera company

Federal raids intersect with 4 connected to controversial red-light camera company

Federal raids on the home and offices of state Sen. Martin Sandoval were followed by raids on several suburban village offices in his senate district. Sandoval and at least three others being investigated are connected to a red-light camera company, which has denied wrongdoing.

A controversial red-light camera company has emerged as an intersecting point in a string of recent suburban FBI raids.

In September, a series of raids involving the FBI and IRS targeted the home and offices of state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago; and the village halls of Lyons, McCook and Summit. On Oct. 5, the Chicago Tribune reported federal agents were seeking information on SafeSpeed LLC, a politically connected red-light camera vendor, “among other companies and individuals.”

SafeSpeed and its executives have for years contributed mightily to Sandoval’s political war chest. The company also maintains a red-light camera contract with Summit, and employs as a consultant Patrick Doherty, the chief of staff for Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, who also serves as mayor of McCook. As a consultant, Doherty receives a percentage of the revenue from tickets issued through SafeSpeed in municipalities where he lands the company contracts.

Local governments that make deals with SafeSpeed, like the company’s consultants, also receive a portion of red-light camera ticket revenues.

Doherty was interviewed by federal authorities, but denied to the Chicago Sun-Times that agents questioned him about SafeSpeed per se. Instead, he said they asked about a separate project involving SafeSpeed investor Omar Maani, who received a federal grant through a separate company to develop low-income housing.

More recently, federal authorities subpoenaed Worth Township Supervisor John O’Sullivan, a former state lawmaker who also moonlights as a consultant for SafeSpeed, to give a deposition in a lawsuit against the neighboring village of Crestwood over its red-light camera program. Crestwood Mayor Lou Presta in August received $1,000 in political contributions from O’Sullivan’s consulting company, according to the Sun-Times.

Sandoval and SafeSpeed

A 2017 investigation by the Tribune found Sandoval used his position as chair of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee to pressure the Illinois Department of Transportation, or IDOT, to approve a SafeSpeed camera at an Oakbrook Terrace intersection, after the company donated to Sandoval’s campaign.

IDOT had previously rejected several requests for red-light cameras for Oakbrook Terrace from Mayor Tony Ragucci, for whom SafeSpeed has long been a top political donor. But the agency repeatedly found the intersections to be sufficiently safe. IDOT reversed its denial and approved the camera installations at Sandoval’s request, two months after the senator received a political contribution from SafeSpeed.

A year after IDOT reversed its decision on the Oakbrook Terrace cameras, Sandoval received the largest political donation in SafeSpeed’s history, $10,000. SafeSpeed investor Omar Maani gave Sandoval $5,000 around the same time, according to the Tribune, on top of a $10,000 contribution from SafeSpeed parent company Triad Consulting, where Maani is a principal.

CEO Nikki Zollar founded SafeSpeed in 2007 after serving as director of the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation in ex-Gov. Jim Edgar’s administration. She also served on the Chicago State University board and the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. She denied wrongdoing

SafeSpeed had not been contacted by federal agents, Zollar told the Sun-Times. “We don’t pay people off,” she said. She said she was aware of agents’ interest in Maani and was working to distance SafeSpeed from him.

Revenue over safety

2018 study from Case Western Reserve University found that red-light cameras likely do not increase traffic safety. Researchers looked at traffic accident data from Houston, which operated its red-light camera program from 2006 to 2010, and found that while T-bone collisions did indeed decrease during that time, non-angle collisions, such as rear-end crashes, actually increased. Moreover, rather than reducing traffic accidents, the study found that red-light enforcement cameras may have increased accidents overall.

Although a 2017 report paid for by the Chicago Department of Transportation recommended Chicago continue its red-light camera program, the university study’s less favorable findings follow that of other independent research on red-light camera programs. The 2017 Tribune investigation, for example, found that more than half of the intersections for which IDOT approved permits have rated among the safest in the department’s own studies at the time of approval.

But SafeSpeed’s generous political spending and local governments’ cut of the proceeds may suggest interest in red-light camera programs is motivated by factors other than safety. From the Oakbrook Terrace intersection alone, SafeSpeed anticipated its own share of revenue at $5 million, separate from what the village would collect from tickets triggered by the cameras.

The city of Chicago’s red-light camera program banked over $54.4 million in revenue in 2017 alone; and  $672.4 million total between January 2008 and September 2018. In 2017, Chicago settled for nearly $40 million after a class-action lawsuit alleged the program violated motorists’ due process rights. A more recent class-action lawsuit alleges that the program fails to satisfy a number of state law requirements, rendering the program “unconstitutional.”

Ending the scam

As the body of research on the devices grows, communities across the country are increasingly deactivating their red-light cameras. Fewer than 350 communities nationwide were using red-light cameras as of October 2019, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That’s a significant decrease from their peak in 2012, when around 540 communities operated red-light cameras.

And while Illinois has been slow to follow the nation’s hard turn away form red-light cameras, a recent push to ban the devices has found bipartisan support in the Statehouse. In January, state Reps. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, and Jonathan Carroll, D-Buffalo Grove, introduced House Bill 323, which would ban the use of red-light cameras statewide. On Oct. 4, state Reps. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, and Sam Yingling, D-Grayslake, signed on as chief co-sponsors.

On Oct. 7, state Reps. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, and Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, introduced a separate proposal, House Bill 3909, which would restrict local governments’ ability to install the devices.

SafeSpeed currently maintains contracts with over 30 Illinois municipalities, according to the company’s website.

Federal authorities have accused neither SafeSpeed nor any of the public officeholders targeted during the September raids of a criminal offense.

Red-light camera programs diminish trust in local government, and impose unfair financial burdens on residents subject to questionable ticketing practices. Whether or not they are proven to be part of Illinois’ culture of corruption, communities should bring the programs to a full stop.

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