Illinois comptroller calls red-light cameras ‘broken and morally corrupt’

Illinois comptroller calls red-light cameras ‘broken and morally corrupt’

Traffic cameras collected more than $1 billion from drivers since 2008, but corruption probes are prompting state comptroller to stop acting as ticket collection agency.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza called for municipalities across the state to reconsider their red-light camera programs in a recent interview, announcing her office will no longer collect unpaid fines from the cameras on behalf of local governments.

“The comptroller’s office isn’t going to be in the business [of helping] a program that’s broken and morally corrupt,” Mendoza said.

Red-light cameras have been the common link as federal agents have raided state and local politicians’ offices, reportedly investigating links between camera company SafeSpeed, pay-to-play schemes and commissions to a politically connected sales force.

Red-light cameras in Illinois have amassed over $1 billion in revenue since 2008, according to an Illinois Policy Institute study. Each red-light camera ticket in Illinois costs drivers up to $100, depending on the municipality, and can double if unpaid.

“It’s more of a money angle,” Mendoza said. “[It’s] a system open to corruption.”

A law passed in 2012 allows the comptroller to help municipalities collect unpaid fines from individuals with outstanding red-light camera violations. The office collected about $11 million for 60 municipalities in 2019, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The fines were taken out of state income tax refunds to the violator. The comptroller keeps $20 from each $100 ticket it collects.

Mendoza is encouraging towns to reconsider their camera programs in the wake the corruption probes. Her office will no longer participate in ticket collection beginning Feb. 6.

“I’m exercising my moral authority to prevent state resources being used to assist a process that, frankly, victimizes taxpayers,” she said.

More state lawmakers have moved kill the program following recent news about its ability to suck money from drivers’ pockets and potential to spawn corruption. Multiple bills have been introduced in Springfield to put an end to the cameras.

Last 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. 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. State Rep. Kambium Buckner, D-Chicago, filed House Bill 3927 on Oct. 28, which would prohibit local governments from contracting with red-light camera companies.

Mendoza voted in favor of red-light cameras while serving as a state representative, citing the devices’ potential safety benefits. At a press conference on Jan. 6, she said hindsight has shown this to be a mistake.

“I don’t think any legislator at the time thought that it would turn into the behemoth that it is today and, frankly, that it would be living in such an unethical space,” she said.

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval had his district and state offices raided in September as federal investigators were seeking information about his relationship with SafeSpeed. The company donated thousands to his campaign. Sandoval was instrumental in convincing the Illinois Department of Transportation to place cameras in Oakbrook Terrace, even though IDOT had determined there was no need. The cameras have since brought in $9.3 million in two years of operation.

More south suburban municipalities had their offices raided in connection to the federal inquiry into SafeSpeed. Agents raided offices in Lyons, McCook and Summit in September. SafeSpeed 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. Former Chicago deputy aviation commissioner Bill Helm also worked as a SafeSpeed sales representative while holding his city job.

The current federal investigations and evidence of pay-to-play schemes have not yet yielded any charges directly related to red-light cameras. Another traffic camera company, RedFlex, was embroiled in a corruption and bribery scandal that in 2015 and 2016 sent the company’s leader and a Chicago city official to prison.

Mendoza said the red-light camera system is about getting money and has nothing to do with safety.

2017 Chicago Tribune report 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. Another Tribune study in 2014 found rear-end collisions increased 22% at intersections with cameras.

Mendoza’s action is welcome news, but state lawmakers should ban red-light cameras during the 2020 legislative session. Illinois drivers should not pay another $1 billion into a municipal money grab that has fostered corruption and failed to make roads safer.

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