Former City Hall insider gets 10 years in red-light camera scam

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John Bills after being sentenced at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on corruption charges related to the Redflex red light camera program on Monday. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

With hope of restoring trust in city government that erodes with “every bribe that’s taken, every kickback that is tendered,” a federal judge sentenced an ex-City Hall insider to 10 years in prison Monday for rigging Chicago’s red-light camera program.

John Bills, a former political operative for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, admitted to U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Kendall that he took bribes, dodged income taxes and has a broken moral compass. The man raised on Chicago’s Southwest Side also said he “destroyed a career and reputation that spanned 32 years.”

“I have disgraced myself,” the 55-year-old said.

But Bills fell short of admitting to the $680,000 in bribes federal prosecutors say he took from Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. while helping the company cheat its way into $131 million in red-light camera contracts between 2002 and 2011. That prompted the judge to later ask Bills, “When do you stop pointing the finger at others?”

“It takes years to build back the people’s trust in the government,” Kendall said as she handed down a significant public corruption sentence that exceeds the time previously handed down to convicted ex-governors and members of Congress.

A jury swiftly convicted Bills, a former assistant commissioner for the Chicago Department of Transportation, on 20 counts of fraud, extortion, bribery and other crimes in January.

When the sentencing hearing ended Monday, Bills lingered in the courtroom to hug family and other supporters in the gallery. He later vowed to appeal and told reporters, “I’m looking forward to getting on to my life.”

The judge found City Hall is due $2 million in restitution. But Bills’ attorney, Nishay Sanan, called any claim of victimhood by the city of Chicago “offensive,” “appalling” and a “complete farce.” He argued the red-light camera program Bills put in place generated more than $700 million for the city. Sanan has claimed the red-light camera scandal actually reaches into the upper echelon of Illinois politics — and he said Monday his client is paying a “trial tax” for not cooperating with federal prosecutors.

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon rejected that argument, telling Kendall that Bills “could have put up or shut up” but did neither, and “so be it.” Fardon, who personally led Bills’ prosecution at trial, said Bills’ scheme is “the story of Chicago.” He also said public officials who choose to walk down a path of corruption should know “the end of that path is inside a prison cell.”

Sanan gave the judge a laundry list of public officials — appointed and elected — who received more lenient prison sentences than the decade prosecutors sought for Bills. When he finished his list of elected officials without mentioning Rod Blagojevich’s 14-year prison term, Kendall prompted laughter in the gallery by telling him, “You left out our most recent governor.”

But Sanan then acknowledged Blagojevich and later told Kendall, “Mr. Bills is not ex-Gov. Blagojevich.” Three of Bills’ supporters described him as a recovering alcoholic who committed crimes but is also responsible for such acts of kindness as the surprise planting of an apple blossom tree after a child’s drowning.

However, Kendall said Bills also took advantage of an elderly alcoholic, Martin O’Malley, as he sought a bagman for his scheme. Redflex hired O’Malley to pass $560,000 in cash bribes to Bills during meetings at Manny’s Deli and Schaller’s Pump. The company also showered Bills with more than $18,000 in posh hotel stays, fancy dinners, computers, cigars and the use of a $177,000 Arizona condo.

The feds put three of Bills’ co-conspirators — former Redflex CEO Karen Finley, ex-Redflex Vice President Aaron Rosenberg and O’Malley — on the stand to help prove their case. Finley and O’Malley have pleaded guilty but have yet to be sentenced. Rosenberg testified under an immunity deal.

Prosecutors filed a memo Monday night indicating “leniency appears appropriate” for O’Malley, “including the possibility of home confinement or probation.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel canceled Redflex’s contract in 2013 after the Chicago Tribune first published allegations about the bribery scheme, and he released a statement about Bills’ sentencing Monday.

“More than a decade ago, John Bills and Redflex broke the law and violated the public trust — and those actions have consequences,” Emanuel said in the statement. “I immediately fired Redflex four years ago, and now Mr. Bills will also pay the price for his role.”

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