clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Red-light probe puts spotlight on old problems — and why tolerating them is ‘N/A’

You get the impression the whole process is designed more for their protection than the public’s.

Patrick Doherty, left; John O’Sullivan, right. 
Patrick Doherty, left, chief of staff for Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey R. Tobolski, in 2011; John O’Sullivan, right, then Worth Township Democratic Party committeeman.
Sun-Times file photos.

Here’s a thought: if government officials receive outside income, it ought to be disclosed to the public. Period.

And here’s another one: nobody should be receiving a sales commission — or bounty, if you will — based on the number of red-light camera tickets produced by the system they happened to sell to their political friends.

Or even to their political enemies.

And finally: how about we face facts and get rid of township government in Cook County, once and for all?

I’ll admit I’m jumping the gun here. It’s too early to know where all these federal investigations in the suburbs are headed, although at some point we can expect them to tie back in with the probes into wrongdoing by more powerful officials in Chicago — home of the real corruption.

We’re still waiting for more people to be charged, and the cases against them laid out. We can’t really say what lessons should be learned before the class has been taught.

But after a few weeks of chasing this latest round of stories, I’m already reminded of some old frustrations with how business is done around here.

Let’s start with the “statement of economic interests” filed by public officials and government employees.

These are the so-called “ethics statements” intended to flag the public to potential conflicts of interest on the part of people working in government — people who may or may not have your best interests in mind while carrying out their official duties.

In practice, these are often referred to as “N/A” forms because that’s how most of the questions are usually answered, “N/A” being short for “not applicable.”

It’s amazing sometimes how many of the folks who you suspect are up to no good have nothing interesting to disclose under the narrowly drawn list of eight questions set forth under state law. You get the impression the whole process is designed more for their protection than the public’s.

The current cause of my frustration in this regard involves the revelation that two public officials, Patrick Doherty, top aide to Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, and John O’Sullivan, the Worth Township supervisor and former Democratic committeeman, have been working as paid “sales consultants” to red-light ticket vendor SafeSpeed LLC.

Doherty even told Sun-Times reporter Robert Herguth that he receives a “small percentage” from “every ticket that’s paid” in certain communities that use SafeSpeed’s system.

In other words, these guys are paid to use their political influence so that local communities can derive revenue from the cameras — which mostly involves milking those drivers who roll through right turns on red.

A sign warns motorists of the presence of a red light camera in Chicago in 2015.
A sign warns motorists of the presence of a red light camera in Chicago in 2015. File Photo.
Associated Press

And the more tickets generated, by Doherty’s explanation, the better for him.

But if you look at their respective statements of economic interests, you’d find scant evidence of their ongoing involvement with SafeSpeed.

O’Sullivan has never disclosed receiving any money from the company. Doherty reported making an undisclosed amount of money from SafeSpeed in 2012 and in 2015, but nothing since.

There are possible legitimate explanations, but Doherty has gone quiet, and O’Sullivan has declined to talk.

Everyone who is making a dime off these red-light contracts should be disclosed, and there should be no financial incentive to the companies to generate more tickets.

I’m a firm believer that you can’t legislate honesty — but you can sure try harder than we do in Illinois.

If it were up to me, we would at least make elected officials release their income tax returns every year, with all attachments. For some reason, I’ve never found a lot of support for that suggestion.

I’d also make lawyers disclose their clients, which isn’t very popular either.

As for township government, we can have a more detailed discussion about that in the future, but several of the players in this current federal investigation have derived their power from this most obscure form of suburban government.

We don’t need township government in Cook County. It serves mostly to provide fiefdoms to Democratic politicians.

Those politicians won’t want to give up those fiefdoms any more than they’ll want to disclose their outside income.

Maybe this will be the investigation that forces their hand.