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Key witness grilled by defense in red-light camera trial

Federal prosecutors built their case against John Bills upon the word of “three liars,” the former city worker’s lawyer has said.

And as the public corruption trial centering around Chicago’s red-light camera program continued Thursday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Bills attorney Nishay Sanan sought to destroy the credibility of one of the government’s three key witnesses, 75-year-old Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. retiree Martin O’Malley.

O’Malley pleaded guilty to his role in a bribery conspiracy involving Bills and Redflex and faces as many as five years in prison. Sanan suggested prosecutors could have come down much harder on O’Malley, but O’Malley struck a deal with them requiring his cooperation in their investigations. Sanan asked O’Malley if he hoped to avoid prison time completely by testifying against Bills.

“That would be nice,” O’Malley said as his testimony spilled into a second day.

Former Redflex CEO Karen Finley has also pleaded guilty and is expected to testify. Redflex vice president Aaron Rosenberg is expected to testify under a grant of immunity.

The feds call Bills a “greedy public official” who reaped an “almost nonstop flow of benefits” by helping Redflex cheat its way into $131 million in city contracts between 2002 and 2011. They say Redflex treated Bills to posh hotel stays, fancy Chicago dinners and lavish golf outings.

And after Bills allegedly helped O’Malley land a $60,000-a-year job at Redflex, they say O’Malley learned he would be passing his bonuses and commissions to Bills. O’Malley testified he passed along $560,000 in cash bribes to Bills, who was an assistant commissioner in the Chicago Department of Transportation when the scheme began. Bills retired from the city in 2011.

O’Malley testified he spent years passing cash to Bills in envelopes at Manny’s Deli or Schaller’s Pump. But during cross-examination Thursday, Sanan took O’Malley year by year, pointing out the lack of any document that would suggest those payments were really made.

Sanan also pointed to several checks written by O’Malley, allegedly with bogus memo lines to cover Bills’ loans to other people. Sanan suggested O’Malley lied on the memo lines so he could write the money off on his taxes as a business expense. He also tried to get O’Malley to describe those payments as a loan to Bills.

“There was never a mention of ‘loan,’” O’Malley countered.

Finally, Sanan pointed to thousands of dollars O’Malley paid by check to Democrats in Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s 13th Ward. Sanan noted that Redflex was interested in expanding its contracts to speed cameras. At the time, legislation still needed to pass in Springfield.

So when Sanan asked if Redflex “could benefit from contributions made to Michael Madigan,” O’Malley agreed.

But when U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon later asked O’Malley if he ever bribed politicians like Madigan or the lobbyists trying to influence him, O’Malley said he didn’t.

He said he bribed Bills.