After John Bills helped her struggling company land its marquee contract to install red-light cameras in Chicago, it apparently made little difference to Karen Finley whom Bills wanted her to hire.
Finley, an executive at Redflex Traffic Systems in Arizona, signed Bills’ buddy Martin O’Malley up for a customer service job in Chicago late in 2003. She did so even though O’Malley seemed far from qualified, or even “computer savvy.”
But more than 12 years later, Finley found herself on the witness stand in a federal courtroom Wednesday. And she told a jury the guiding principle she followed when it came to O’Malley.
“He takes care of John,” Finley said. “And John took care of Redflex.”
Now Bills, a longtime city worker who retired in 2011, is on trial for fraud, extortion, bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery and filing false tax returns. The feds say he steered $131 million in city contracts to Redflex between 2002 and 2011. And in exchange, they say, Redflex showered Bills with an “almost nonstop flow of benefits.”
U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon is personally participating in Bills’ prosecution, and he spent much of the day questioning Finley in front of the jury.
The last of three key government witnesses to take the stand, Finley has already pleaded guilty to her role in the scheme. So has O’Malley, who testified last week that he passed $560,000 in cash bribes to Bills through the job Bills helped him land at Redflex. Former Redflex Vice President Aaron Rosenberg testified Tuesday that he delivered another $14,246 in posh hotel stays, fine dining, rental cars, golf outings, computers and cigars to Bills in return for his help at City Hall.
Finley served as Redflex’s vice president of operations from 2001 until 2005, when she became the company’s CEO. She said she didn’t initially realize that O’Malley was passing his bonus and commission money to Bills, an assistant commissioner in the Chicago Department of Transportation when the scam started. It later became apparent, and she buried her head in the sand.
“I just didn’t want to know,” Finley testified Wednesday.
She said she tried to protect O’Malley as other Redflex executives questioned the lucrative arrangement that could net O’Malley as much as $276,000 annually — more than Finley made in a year.
“I knew we needed to continue to take care of Marty,” Finley said.
When asked why Redflex paid for Bills’ airfare as he flew from Chicago to Phoenix even though she knew it wasn’t supposed to, Finley told the jury Bills “was an important customer to Redflex.”
Bills attorney Nishay Sanan has hammered away at the credibility of the government’s key witnesses, and he forced Finley to concede she faced severe penalties before she agreed to testify against Bills. She seemed to fight back tears when she told the jury earlier that she faces up to five years in prison. She has also pleaded guilty to a similar scheme in Ohio.
Finley admitted to Fardon and Sanan that she repeatedly lied to investigators as they tried to get to the bottom of the Chicago red-light camera scam.
She told Fardon simply: “I was scared.”