Oakbrook Terrace mayor resigns amid red-light camera probe
Federal investigators have been digging into the political corruption surrounding red-light cameras, including a pair of the multi-million dollar traffic devices in Oakbrook Terrace.
The mayor of Oakbrook Terrace resigned Jan. 17 as news emerged he was the part of a federal probe into red-light cameras, the controversial traffic control devices that have collected $9.3 million in his western Chicago suburb.
Tony Ragucci resigned as Oakbrook Terrace mayor on the same day the Chicago Tribune reported he was one of the politicians and connected contractors being targeted by agents investigating SafeSpeed LLC, a red-light traffic camera company. Campaign disclosures show Ragucci paid $30,000 from his campaign fund to his lawyer, Thomas Crooks, in November, which the newspaper said was for representation in the probe.
FBI agents also took $60,000 from a safe when they raided Ragucci’s home in October, the Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this month.
Ragucci was a police officer for 25 years before he became the city’s mayor in April 2009. His third term quickly began to unravel in September after FBI and IRS agents began raiding the offices of politicians connected to SafeSpeed. SafeSpeed, along with its owners and officers, have been among Ragucci’s biggest campaign donors, the Tribune reported.
Red-light cameras in Illinois sucked more than $1 billion away from drivers from 2008 to 2018, an Illinois Policy Institute analysis found. Additionally, they have been at the center of federal corruption investigations of politicians at the state, county and local levels.
Federal agents raided the village offices of McCook, Lyons, and Summit in September in connection to the SafeSpeed investigation. Two days earlier, former state Sen. Martin Sandoval had his home and offices raided in the same investigation. He has since resigned his senate seat.
Ragucci in 2015 asked the Illinois Department of Transportation to allow installation of the cameras in his city, but they rejected his proposal because their study found the intersections to be safe, according a Tribune report. The department changed their mind when Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Sandoval lobbied them about the idea two months after he received a $10,000 donation from SafeSpeed and another $5,000 from a company investor.
SafeSpeed’s CEO has denied any wrongdoing and no charges have been filed.
At the time of the raids, Ragucci told the Tribune investigators were not questioning him and the city was not a subject of their probe. He has not returned requests for comment to the Tribune since.
In the two years Oakbrook Terrace has operated two red-light cameras, they have collected over $9.3 million, according to data collected from a Freedom of Information Act request. In fiscal year 2019 alone, the city received $5.4 million, far more than any other municipality in the state besides Chicago.
The city’s fiscal year 2020 budget projects another $5 million from the two cameras, the Tribune reported. SafeSpeed charges the city about $2.3 million annually for the cameras, plus a $2,000 per month maintenance fee.
Placing cameras at safe intersections makes it pretty clear the devices are about revenue and not safety. A 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.
Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza recently said her office will no longer help local governments collect fines from unpaid red-light camera tickets.
“The comptroller’s office isn’t going to be in the business [of helping] a program that’s broken and morally corrupt,” Mendoza said.
Also, SafeSpeed is not the first red-light camera company to be at the center of a corruption probe. A high-ranking Chicago official and the RedFlex Traffic Systems Inc. CEO went to federal prison after a bribery investigation.
State lawmakers have introduced bills to ban the cameras statewide. The 2020 legislative session would be a perfect time to advance a ban and end a scheme that has sucked $1 billion away from drivers and left too many Illinois politicians hiring lawyers to protect them from the feds.