Red-light camera vendor at heart of corruption probes gets PPP loan

Red-light camera vendor at heart of corruption probes gets PPP loan

SafeSpeed has been involved in a federal investigation that has resulted in corruption charges against multiple Illinois politicians.

Illinois’ largest red-light camera vendor, SafeSpeed LLC, received a Paycheck Protection Program loan between $1 million and $2 million from one branch of the federal government as another branch pursues a corruption probe involving it.

The PPP was part of a relief package intended to help small businesses keep employees during COVID-19 shutdowns. Chicago-based SafeSpeed received the loan April 4 and was able to retain 39 employees because of it, according to the federal data.

SafeSpeed and its dealings to place automated traffic-ticketing cameras in municipalities repeatedly has emerged as federal investigators probe Illinois political corruption. Politicians from suburbs in Cook County all the way to Springfield have been charged with multiple counts of corruption related to their relationship with SafeSpeed, although the company’s chief has denied wrongdoing or knowing bribes were being paid.

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty to taking $250,000 in bribes from SafeSpeed, 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.

In September 2019, a series of raids involving the FBI and IRS targeted the home and offices of Sandoval, seeking information in part on SafeSpeed. The politically connected red-light camera company’s executives had for years generously supported Sandoval’s political war chest.

Sandoval lobbied Illinois Department of Transportation officials to have red-light cameras installed at two locations in Oakbrook Terrace, even after IDOT found the intersections were safe and did not warrant the cameras. The two SafeSpeed cameras collected $9.3 million in the city in 2018 and 2019. Crashes increased at the intersections after the cameras were installed.

Relationships with SafeSpeed and subsequent federal probes have shaken Cook County government. Cook County Commissioner Jeffery Tobolski resigned on March 6 after his chief of staff, Patrick Doherty, was hit with bribery charges after allegedly paying a $4,000 bribe to get SafeSpeed’s cameras installed in Oakbrook Terrace.

Bill Helm, a former top IDOT official, was charged on March 5 with allegedly paying a bribe to Sandoval to get his support for a construction project. Helm was also a sales representative for SafeSpeed.

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.

Next year, lawmakers need to continue to push for the elimination of red-light cameras. Besides taking $1 billion from Illinoisans for dubious safety reasons, they fostered corruption long before SafeSpeed was established.

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