Charges against county official another indictment of red-light camera industry

Case against small time political player points to broader corruption.

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A sign warns motorists of the presence of a red light camera in Chicago in 2015.

Red-light cameras may increase safety, but it’s the money they bring in that makes them popular with many municipalities.

Associated Press

Patrick Doherty is one of those anonymous operatives found on the periphery of local Democratic politics — anonymous, that is, until they so often wind up in the middle of the stew.

Doherty’s specialty is doing campaign work, in particular on behalf of judicial candidates.

With his own small crew of street workers, Doherty helps lawyers who want to get elected judge circulate nominating petitions and get their name on the ballot.

Opinion bug


That type of work doesn’t pay very well. A few thousand dollars here, a few thousand there.

For a little bit more, he might hire on as a consultant and take them around to political functions, introducing them to “people you should know.” 

Sometimes, they make him their campaign manager, or he prepares their mailers.

At least a dozen judicial candidates reported paying Doherty from their campaign committees in recent years.

I’d list them all here by name except that doesn’t seem entirely sporting, now that Doherty was indicted Friday for allegedly conspiring to bribe an Oak Lawn village trustee to help win business for a red-light camera company, believed to be SafeSpeed LLC. 

For most of his career, the 64-year-old Doherty worked in the lower tier of politics, bouncing from one public payroll to the next. He managed a couple bars, owned one himself for a while.

But Doherty’s fortunes took a sharp upturn after he caught on with Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski and with SafeSpeed.

Tobolski made Doherty his chief of staff.

Patrick Doherty, chief of staff for Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski.

Patrick Doherty, chief of staff for Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, is accused of paying a relative of an Oak Lawn trustee to get more red-light cameras installed in the village.

Sun-Times file photo

SafeSpeed hired Doherty to moonlight as a sales agent, enabling him to use his connections from a lifetime in politics to win contracts from certain suburbs.

Doherty has told the Sun-Times that SafeSpeed paid him a share of the fines forked over by motorists accused of red-light camera violations in those towns.

There’s a lot of money in red-light cameras, and soon Doherty was living in a nice new house in Palos Heights.

While somebody like me might consider Doherty’s SafeSpeed arrangement to be unethical, it would not appear to violate any laws on its face.

Where Doherty ran afoul of the law, prosecutors contend, is by conspiring with a SafeSpeed owner and another sales agent for the company to pay a relative of an Oak Lawn village trustee — in hopes that the town would approve the installation of additional red-light cameras.

People always ask me about the amount of corruption in Illinois government, especially Chicago and Cook County.

And I’m someone who doesn’t go around believing everyone in government is corrupt. In fact, I think most public officials are honest and try to do the right thing.

But every time federal prosecutors pull back the curtain, what I find most striking is the depth of the corruption, how it extends even to the little people in the system.

What I think happens is that those occupying the bottom rungs of politics spend so many years watching those on top get wealthy, and they come to believe this is how it’s done. Heck, some of them know this is how it’s done.

Federal prosecutors would no doubt like Doherty to cooperate in their investigation of both SafeSpeed and Tobolski, who has been under a cloud since September, when investigators raided the village hall in McCook, where Tobolski is mayor.

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval leaving federal court Jan. 28, 2020, after pleading guilty to bribery and tax charges.

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval leaving federal court after pleading guilty to bribery and tax charges in January.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times file

The burgeoning SafeSpeed investigation marks the second time the red-light camera industry in Illinois has caused a major corruption scandal. Former Chicago Department of Transportation official John Bills was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2016 for his role in steering the city’s red-light camera contract to Redflex.

My question is whether this will be the last red-light scandal.

Legislation has been introduced to ban red-light cameras, and this time they won’t have state Sen. Martin Sandoval to bribe to kill the proposals. He’s already pleaded guilty to his role.

While there is some safety benefit from the cameras, the real reason they are popular with local government officials is that they generate so much money.

It’s that money that also has made them a lure for corruption.

The little people in the system see this, and they wait for the governors, the legislative leaders and the mayors to show they see it as well.

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