Federal prosecutors opened a new front in their battle against public corruption Monday, alleging former state Sen. Martin Sandoval took a bribe to oppose legislation that would harm the red-light camera industry.
The new charges make Sandoval Illinois’ fourth elected official to face federal charges since January 2019. But they are the first to involve the controversial red-light camera industry, a focus of a series of high-profile raids four months ago. The raids included Sandoval’s home and offices in the state Capitol building.
Sandoval has been charged in a two-page document known as an information. It offers few details but suggests he plans to plead guilty. Sandoval is due in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood Tuesday morning.
His attorney, Dylan Smith, declined to comment.
Records from the Sept. 24 search of Sandoval’s Capitol office show the feds were interested in, among several other things, the politically connected red-light camera company SafeSpeed. A source confirmed Monday that SafeSpeed is the company at issue in the Sandoval case.
Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for SafeSpeed, released a written statement Monday on behalf of the company.
“We are saddened and surprised by the allegations that Sen. Sandoval sought out individuals to solicit and receive bribes,” it said. “As we have said from the beginning, we support efforts to root out corruption, and applaud the government’s efforts. Allegations of corruption undercut the important traffic safety mission that motivates the red light camera industry to save lives and serve taxpayers. We will continue to serve our client communities consistent with these two values.”
Before his office was raided, Sandoval served as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. He stepped down from that position in October but chose to remain a member of the panel. He resigned from the Senate effective Jan. 1.
Prosecutors charged Sandoval with one count of bribery, alleging he took money for his “continued support for the operation of red-light cameras in the State of Illinois, including opposing legislation adverse to the interests of the red-light camera industry.”
They also charged him with one count of filing a false income tax return, alleging he filed a 2017 return that reported an income of $125,905 when he “knew that the total income substantially exceeded that amount.”
The feds cited a specific piece of legislation when they came calling at Sandoval’s office in September. The Illinois House passed that bill 79-26 on April 22, 2015, but it never got called for a vote in the Senate. It was intended to repeal red-light cameras.
Over the next year, the bill bounced around several committees, twice being referred to the Transportation Committee chaired by Sandoval. The bill’s last stop was the assignments committee, where it died when the legislative session ended Jan. 10, 2017.
None of the Senate committees ever voted on the bill.
SafeSpeed CEO Nikki Zollar told the Chicago Sun-Times in October, “We don’t pay people off,” but she said Omar Maani — a SafeSpeed partner, businessman and developer —appeared to be cooperating with the government. Other sources familiar with the probe have said the same.
Sandoval has also been connected to an ongoing investigation involving ComEd and Exelon. The companies have acknowledged they’ve been subpoenaed for records related to Sandoval. The former senator’s daughter has also listed herself online as a senior account manager in government affairs at ComEd.
Also named by the feds in records from the Sandoval raid was Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, who doubles as mayor of McCook. Tobolski’s McCook office was targeted by federal agents a few days later, and a source told the Sun-Times the searches were connected.
For lawmakers, this is the second consecutive legislative session to kick off with charges against one of their colleagues. Prosecutors charged then-state Rep. Luis Arroyo with bribery just as lawmakers gathered in October for the start of the fall veto session. On Monday, lawmakers were headed to Springfield for the start of the spring session, which convenes Tuesday. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is also set to deliver his State of the State address Wednesday.
Pritzker called Monday for ethics legislation and said the legislature needs to “scare off the people that think that they should hold public office to make a buck for themselves.”
“First of all, this kind of behavior, this kind of activity, is utterly repellent,” Pritzker said at an unrelated event. “The people who are committing these crimes — people who get elected to public office and then serve their own pockets and not the interests of the people that they are supposed to be representing — those people need to get out of public office.”
Also charged in separate cases by the feds are Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), who faces a racketeering indictment, and state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, who has been accused of embezzling from the Teamsters. Arroyo was charged in October with trying to bribe a state senator who wound up being an informant for the feds.
Though the charges against Arroyo did not name the senator, a source told the Sun-Times the senator is Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills. Link has denied it.
Arroyo appears on track to plead guilty. He is due in court Feb. 4 for an arraignment. Cullerton is set for trial in July. No trial has been set for Burke.
Though these are the first charges related to red-light cameras to emerge from the feds’ recent investigations, this is not the first time the industry has been at the center of corruption charges at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.
In 2016, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall handed a 10-year prison sentence to John Bills, a former political operative for Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan convicted of 20 counts of fraud, extortion, bribery and other crimes for helping Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. cheat its way into $131 million in red-light camera contracts between 2002 and 2011.
Contributing: Rachel Hinton, Tim Novak, Robert Herguth