Ex-Chicago city official moonlighted for red-light camera contractor that’s part of federal probe
While Bill Helm was deputy aviation commissioner, overseeing airfield maintenance at O’Hare Airport, he also was working for SafeSpeed, LLC, and didn’t disclose that, records show.
When drivers get red-light camera tickets in Matteson, a portion of their fines has been going to a recently retired deputy Chicago city aviation commissioner who’s at the center of a political corruption investigation, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Bill Helm — a $125,000-a-year deputy aviation commissioner overseeing airfield maintenance at O’Hare Airport until he quit in August — also was a paid sales representative for SafeSpeed, LLC, while on the city payroll, the records show.
SafeSpeed paid Helm, who’d held the city aviation post since 2014, a commission on red-light tickets written in Matteson and also Glendale Heights, the records show. Glendale Heights ended its affiliation with the red-light camera operator in 2018, officials said.
Matteson and Glendale Heights officials said they hadn’t heard of Helm and were unaware he was being paid under their contracts with SafeSpeed.
Helm didn’t disclose the outside work to City Hall, as required for any “secondary employment,” a spokesman said. Nor did he inform the Chicago Board of Ethics of outside income.
SafeSpeed and Helm have been named in federal search warrants and subpoenas served on several southwest suburbs and on the offices of state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, the Sun-Times has reported.
Helm, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, has hired a criminal defense lawyer and is believed to be a target of the federal investigation, sources have told the Sun-Times. Authorities questioned Helm on Sept. 26 and seized his phone.
Helm, 55, wouldn’t comment.
Nor would a spokesman for SafeSpeed, whose co-CEO Nikki Zollar was an aide to Gov. Jim Edgar and has served on the Chicago State University board and Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
Last month, the Sun-Times reported Helm has ties to several people who’ve drawn scrutiny in the ongoing probe, including gambling magnate Rick Heidner. Helm was moonlighting to get bars and other establishments to use Heidner’s video gaming machines.
SafeSpeed also employed two other politically connected sales consultants: Patrick Doherty, chief of staff to Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, and John O’Sullivan, a former state representative who’s the Worth Township supervisor.
Doherty has said he gets a “small percentage” from “every ticket that’s paid” in certain communities that use SafeSpeed’s red-light cameras.
A Sept. 10 email from SafeSpeed to Helm indicates he had a similar arrangement. For July 2019, it says Helm was owed $4,156 — 3.5% of $118,766 in “SafeSpeed fees” that month from Matteson.
The email also says Helm was due 4% of company fees from Glendale Heights. That came to just $1.40 for July — such a small amount because the DuPage County community ended its contract with SafeSpeed a year earlier, so the only revenue was from collections on old tickets.
Asked about Helm’s commission, Glendale Heights police Chief Douglas Flint said that, had village officials known of his involvement, “That would have been a certain revocation of our contract.”
Glendale Heights and SafeSpeed “mutually parted ways” in 2018, after one year, according to Flint, in a contract dispute.
In Matteson, village spokesman Sean Howard said, “Mr. Helm’s name was never raised in any discussions nor within the written contract between SafeSpeed and the village of Matteson.”
Sheila Chalmers-Currin, Matteson’s village president, said she never heard of Helm. She noted that SafeSpeed got its original contract before she was elected in 2017, though she was a village trustee. Her predecessor, Andre Ashmore, said he wasn’t involved in the negotiations and didn’t recall Helm’s name.
Matteson extended its contract with SafeSpeed last year but rejected a request to put red-light cameras at more intersections, Howard said.
Helm was named in search warrants served on the offices of Sandoval and Tobolski, a political ally of Helm. Tobolski also is mayor of McCook.
Records show Sandoval invited Helm to his son’s wedding and that Helm emailed Sandoval about a federal lawsuit filed by two O’Hare truck drivers who said Helm pushed them to do political work for, among others, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and ex-Ald. Patrick O’Connor while on the job for the city.
“Marty, just goes to show that this whole lawsuit is BS!,” Helm wrote Dec. 8 to Sandoval. “Just wanted to let you . . . know, this will be exhibit A for dismissing this frivolous lawsuit. Give me a call when you can. Thanks for everything!”
The attachment Helm referred to appears to be a letter to union members written by then-Teamsters Local 700 leader Becky Strzechowski that effectively took management’s side and backed Helm in the dispute.
Strzechowski resigned earlier this year, seven months before her mentor, longtime Chicago Teamsters boss John Coli Sr., pleaded guilty in an extortion case involving Cinespace Chicago Film Studios.
Helm was hired by the Emanuel administration, and records show the mayor’s top aides and O’Connor signed off in February 2016 on an “unscheduled” $5,000 pay raise for Helm.