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Brown: Too small to bribe is defense argument in red-light camera case

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Whatever his crimes, the former city employee charged with putting in the fix for the lucrative red-light camera contract is not lacking in chutzpah.

Faced with a mountain of evidence that will include alleged co-conspirators testifying against him, plenty of corroborating documentation and a whole lot of suspicious cash to explain away, John Bills went all-in Wednesday at the opening of his federal trial.

Through his lawyer, Nishay Sanan, Bills denied everything, suggested that others got the money instead, and appealed to Chicagoans’ streetwise sense of how the world really works.

If you want to bribe your way to a city contract in Chicago, Sanan told the jurors, you don’t bribe some assistant city commissioner, Bills’ rank at the time.

Instead, you bribe an alderman or the mayor or the president or a senator, somebody with the power, influence and leverage to deliver the results.

By president, we assume Sanan meant a County Board president, but maybe he goes for really big conspiracy theories. Notably, he didn’t mention bribing a governor, which has been known to work as well, although not necessarily for city contracts.

As defense theories go, I loved it, because it fits perfectly into my cynical worldview, which is not exactly the same as my believing it.

OPINION

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From the day Bills’ name first surfaced as the key City Hall figure in the Redflex Traffic Systems scandal, the big question has been whether he had the juice to pull it off all by himself or whether he was the buffer for others.

Most of us suspicious types figured somebody else had to be involved.

The case outlined Wednesday by assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Storino did not necessarily rule out that possibility, but made clear that Bills was well positioned to subtly steer the contract on his own without having to share his bribe money.

It’s well known that during the Daley years the real shot callers in many city departments were the guys two or three rungs down the ladder such as Bills. They were the ones with the political connections.

Bills’ connections were to the 13th Ward Democratic Organization of Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

But there’s really been no showing in this case whether Bills had that kind of juice or whether he was just a dishonest payroller who caught the perfect storm when he was assigned to oversee the red light camera program at a time the Daley Administration was desperate for new revenue sources.

On the first day of testimony, Bills dressed the part of the mid-level bureaucrat schlub in a white shirt and necktie with no suit coat.

He listened intently to the testimony of the first major witness, Martin J. O’Malley, who said Bills recruited him through their Thursday night Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to serve as his bagman through a job arranged with Redflex.

O’Malley, 75, did not come across as the sharpest knife in the drawer, by which I mean nobody is going to believe he was the mastermind behind any conspiracy.

Unemployed before Redflex hired him in 2004 and lacking either a cell phone or personal computer, O’Malley detailed how he received commissions arranged by Bills from the Arizona company and passed them along in cash over lunches at Manny’s Deli, Schaller’s Pump and Gio’s. Those are some of my favorites restaurants as well, which I find strangely reassuring.

But O’Malley understood the score and that paying the money to Bills was corrupt.

So why did he do it?

“I needed a job,” he told U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon, who is personally prosecuting the case. The job, by the way, only paid him about $60,000 a year in salary.

O’Malley said Redflex paid him some $2 million in commissions and bonuses during the time he worked there from 2004 to 2011, although it was understood the money wasn’t his. It’s unclear to me how much of that money prosecutors believe made its way to Bills.

(Tellingly, the commissions stopped when Bills retired from the city and took another job — with a consulting company trying to help Redflex convince Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration to give it the speed camera contract.)

Before the trial is over, Sanan says he will show where the cash from O’Malley went and that it didn’t go to Bills, suggesting it went instead to “lobbyists” and leaving open the possibility of where it might have gone from there.

I can’t wait.

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