In a trial that has already put the Chicago Way front and center before a federal jury, defense lawyers for a former City Hall insider ratcheted up the intrigue Monday by claiming Chicago’s red-light camera scandal reaches into the upper echelon of Illinois politics.
The defense attorney for former city worker John Bills, the man accused of taking more than a half-million dollars in cash bribes from Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., used closing arguments in Bills’ trial to allege Redflex’s so-called “bagman” actually passed the company’s dirty money to lobbyists it hired with ties to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Nishay Sanan said those lobbyists then funneled that cash “upstairs.”
But Chicago’s Southern-mannered top fed had the final say. And before jurors began deliberating, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon told them exactly what he thought of Sanan’s theory.
“That’s malarkey,” Fardon said. “That’s not the law. That’s not the facts. That’s not the evidence. That’s not the truth.”
The arguments on Monday helped bring to a close the latest sad chapter in Chicago’s long saga of public corruption. Federal prosecutors spent two weeks trying to convince a jury that Bills helped Redflex cheat its way into $131 million in red-light camera contracts between 2002 and 2011, first as an assistant commissioner in the Chicago Department of Transportation and later as an assistant director at the Office of Emergency Management and Control. Bills is on trial for fraud, extortion, bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery and filing false tax returns.
Fardon personally took part in Bills’ prosecution in a move rarely seen since he became Chicago’s top federal law enforcement official in October 2013. Before taking the job, Fardon was best known for helping prosecute former Gov. George Ryan.
Sanan again told jurors Monday his client didn’t have the political juice to pull off a massive scandal that allegedly reaped Bills “an almost non-stop flow of benefits,” including free hotel rooms, fancy dinners, airfare, car rentals, golf outings, computers, cigars and the use of a $177,000 Arizona condo.
“In the city of Chicago, there exists a well-oiled political machine,” Sanan said.
The defense attorney said Redflex executives knew better than to bribe a cloutless bureaucrat. The same executives got caught up in a similar scandal in Ohio — bribing politicians higher up the food chain.
“You go to an elected official,” Sanan said. “You do not go to John Bills.”
But Fardon said it doesn’t take an elected official to pull off such a crime. He warned jurors “this is not a talk show” as he addressed Sanan’s theory that cash bribes went to powerful Chicago politicians who also included longtime Chicago Ald. Ed Burke.
“There’s not a single shred of evidence that’s been heard in this courtroom that supports any of that,” Fardon said.
The top fed also tried to dispense with Sanan’s repeated arguments that the government’s three key witnesses — former Redflex CEO Karen Finley, ex-Redflex Vice President Aaron Rosenberg and “bagman” Martin O’Malley — can’t be trusted because they’ve lied before. Fardon agreed they are all “criminals,” but he said several witnesses and thousands of pages of documents corroborate their testimony.
O’Malley testified that he passed $560,000 in cash bribes to Bills in envelopes as they lunched at Manny’s Deli or Schaller’s Pump. And Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurie Barsella showed jurors how the records matched his testimony. For example, she pointed to $10,500 in cash withdrawals O’Malley made just before Bills bought a Mercedes for $12,500 cash. And immediately after Bills and O’Malley emailed each other about an “eight-page speed report” — allegedly code for an $8,000 bribe — she noted that O’Malley made $8,000 in withdrawals from his bank account.
“He’s sure as heck paying bribes to somebody,” Fardon said of O’Malley.
But Sanan said the prosecutors’ theory doesn’t make sense. He said his client bought an “old” Mercedes with 69,000 miles on it, supposedly used his work email to discuss the massive scheme and allegedly demanded the bribes from Rosenberg in a “public place” — a bar.
The defense attorney told the jury they didn’t have to buy it.
“Send the message that we are not going to rely on liars,” Sanan told them.
Jurors deliberated briefly Monday afternoon and are expected to return Tuesday morning.