A former City Hall official who once proudly wore White Sox pinstripes could find himself in prison orange if the feds are able to prove charges that he took bribes from the firm that installed Chicago’s red-light cameras.
John Bills, 52, allegedly got bribes including a Arizona condo and a used Mercedes to steer $124 million of taxpayer money to Redflex Traffic Systems, the Australian-owned business that helped ensure Chicago has more red-light cameras than anywhere else in the United States.
Super Bowl tickets, golf outings, a laptop, a boat, his children’s school fees, a retirement party — even his girlfriend’s mortgage and his own divorce attorney — were all also likely paid for with cash the former managing deputy commissioner of the city’s transportation department received, according to a federal complaint unsealed Wednesday.
Arrested at his Chicago home, Bills, a bearded former Democratic precinct captain in the 13th Ward and campaign worker for House Speaker Michael Madigan — who took a side job from 1999 until 2007 as a part-time clubhouse assistant with the Chicago White Sox — had little to say for himself during a brief appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria Valdez.
“I do,” he said, when asked if he understands his rights, later leaving the courthouse on bond without comment. His lawyer, Nishay Sanan, said Bills is innocent.
But Redflex was last year fired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and banned from bidding for contracts, after the Chicago Tribune disclosed Bills’ relationship with the firm. Emanuel said Wednesday the move proves he has “zero tolerance for corruption and has worked to change the culture at City Hall.”
The cameras were touted as a safety measure by former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Installed at accident-prone intersections beginning in 2003, they pumped out a high of 791,111 tickets in 2009.
Bills is painted in the complaint as a slick operator who knew how to take advantage of his position in charge of the camera program.
“It’s time to make good,” he allegedly warned Redflex executives as they celebrated Redflex’s first Chicago contract together at a Los Angeles restaurant in 2003. Bills had sabotaged the contract bid of a rival company, the complaint alleges. Though cameras installed for a comparison test by Redflex and the rival both had patchy results, Bills allegedly only showed the city’s contract evaluation committee good photos captured by Redflex cameras and bad photos taken by the rival’s cameras.
He then arranged seating for the vote so that committee members he knew would support Redflex voted first, placing pressure on members voting later to back Redflex, the complaint states.
In the years that followed, Bills allegedly helped Redflex win more contracts and eventually install a total of 384 cameras — more than any other city in the U.S.
Redflex funneled payments to him through a pal — identified by Sanan as consultant Marty O’Malley — who bought him a $177,000 condo, and picked up the tab for his retirement party at the end of his 32-year career in 2011, it’s alleged.
And upon his retirement, Redflex arranged for him to be given a job at another firm to give Redflex cover for the bribe, the complaint states.
Redflex’s own internal investigation concluded last year that Redflex bribed Bills and concealed those favors from the city.
But speaking outside court Wednesday, Sanan said Bills only voted for one of the contracts and “wasn’t the guy who you’d have bribed” because “he never had the authority” to award a contract. Bills offered to turn himself in to the feds but instead was arrested and taken to the FBI’s Chicago headquarters in an attempt to intimidate him into cooperating, he said.
Sanan said the feds are most interested in senior managers at Redflex, but said they would likely also have questioned Bills about political figures.
Bills has no information to share, he said.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown initially said that Bills had not been involved in the speaker’s powerful political organization “for like 10 years” but later acknowledged that Bills worked for Madigan’s House Democratic candidates in 2010 and 2012.
Campaign records show Bills was paid more than $1,400 by two Madigan-controlled campaign committees to work on behalf of Democrats — payments that were made for Bills “experience in grassroots campaigning,” Brown said.
State records also show that Madigan’s 13th Ward Democratic Organization repaid prior donations of $1,800 to Redflex in 2012, after concerns about the company were made public.
In an emailed statement late Wednesday, Redflex said: “Last year we publicly released the findings of our internal investigation into the conduct of several former employees and announced new leadership, new policies and a line between our past and today’s Redflex. As promised, we also fully cooperated with the authorities. We did what a responsible company should do and we are pleased that our internal investigation contributed to the government’s legal action.”
The investigation by the FBI, the IRS and Chicago’s Inspector General is ongoing, authorities say.