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Redflex trial: Is ex-city employee ‘greedy’ or cloutless scapegoat?

If Chicago’s red-light camera operator wanted to bribe its way into a contract in 2003, it wouldn’t have picked John Bills’ palm to grease, the former city worker’s lawyer told a federal jury Wednesday.

Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. would have bribed the mayor. Or an alderman. But Bills, an assistant commissioner in the Chicago Department of Transportation, just didn’t have the clout to get the job done, according to attorney Nishay Sanan.

“You want a contract, you bribe an elected official,” Sanan said.

Federal prosecutors disagree and opened yet another sad chapter in Chicago’s long saga of public corruption Wednesday, putting Bills on trial for fraud, extortion, bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery and filing false tax returns. Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Storino called Bills a “greedy public official” who reaped an “almost non-stop flow of benefits” as he helped Redflex cheat its way into $131 million in city contracts between 2002 and 2011.

“This case is about the defendant, John Bills, and how he violated and breached the fiduciary duty he owed to this city in order to put money in his own pocket,” Storino said during opening statements.

The scheme mostly went down during the administration of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Mayor Rahm Emanuel canceled Redflex’s contract in 2013.

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon is participating in the case and personally spent hours Wednesday questioning Martin O’Malley, who testified he passed along $560,000 in cash bribes from Redflex to Bills. The feds say Bills landed O’Malley a $60,000-a-year job at RedFlex, but O’Malley later learned he was expected to pass along his bonuses and commissions to the city official.

“I put it in the bank, paid taxes on it and gave the rest to Mr. Bills,” O’Malley testified.

The 75-year-old retiree said he would often pass the cash to Bills in manila envelopes over lunch, usually at Manny’s Deli or Schaller’s Pump. Bills would allegedly tell O’Malley in coded emails how much cash to bring. For example, a reference to an “eight-page speed report” would indicate Bills expected to receive $8,000, O’Malley testified.

Bills and O’Malley met at Alcoholics Anonymous on the South Side in 2002 and purportedly became friends. But O’Malley appeared to avoid Bills’ gaze as he trudged into the courtroom Wednesday. Sanan told the jury during opening statements that Bills and O’Malley were never close.

Sanan attacked O’Malley’s credibility, as well as that of former Redflex CEO Karen Finley and Vice President Aaron Rosenberg. O’Malley and Finley have pleaded guilty and have agreed to testify against Bills. Rosenberg is expected to testify under a grant of immunity.

Prosecutors say Redflex treated Bills to posh hotel stays, fancy Chicago dinners and lavish golf outings. But Sanan said it was really Rosenberg who was double-dipping, accepting reimbursement from Bills for those extravagances and filing expense reports with Redflex anyway.

The feds also say Bills had thousands of dollars in cash to throw around to buy a boat and a used Mercedes, and to pay rent on an apartment. But Sanan said that’s simply because Bills sold sports memorabilia and Super Bowl tickets. One of those Super Bowl tickets went for $11,000, Sanan said.

By the end of Bills’ trial, Sanan said the jury will know what O’Malley really did with all the cash he says he paid to Bills. And by then, he said prosecutors will have failed to prove Bills guilty.

“They will have failed miserably,” Sanan said.