Former Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta sentenced to 1 year for bribery

The judge called corruption in Illinois “death by a thousand cuts,” and he wondered aloud how many red-light tickets had been wrongly issued in Crestwood as a result of Presta’s crime.

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Former Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse for a sentencing hearing Monday, April 25, 2022.

Former Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta enters the Dirksen Federal Courthouse for his sentencing hearing Monday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Former Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta became just the latest Chicago-area politician sentenced to federal prison on Monday, five months after he admitted taking a secret $5,000 cash bribe while promising to increase red-light camera tickets in the suburb.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin sentenced Presta, 71, to a year behind bars, telling Presta that “public officials are held to a higher standard because you are given the power to affect people’s lives.”

The judge also called corruption in Illinois “death by a thousand cuts,” and he wondered aloud how many red-light tickets had been wrongly issued in Crestwood as a result of Presta’s crime.

“Crestwood’s not a wealthy suburb,” Durkin said. “These are people who really can’t afford to be paying these tickets.”

Before he was sentenced, Presta told the judge “I never thought I would be a criminal defendant.” He admitted he “accepted a bribe as mayor of Crestwood” and apologized for not paying his taxes.

Presta’s defense attorney, Thomas Breen, told the judge that Presta is not in good health. He also challenged the characterization of Presta’s case as “a horrible, horrible example of political corruption.” He told the judge, “I really don’t find the mayor of Crestwood to be a political figure, as it is usually defined.”

Aside from the “cash contribution” that Presta accepted from a onetime partner in the red-light camera company SafeSpeed LLC, Breen said Presta was “pure as driven snow.”

Durkin wasn’t swayed by the argument that Presta was “a caring mayor,” noting that there are a lot of caring mayors “who don’t take bribes.” Still, he said Presta’s sentence would have been higher had it not been for his ailing health and the many letters of support written on his behalf.

Ahead of Monday’s sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Durkin argued in a court memo that the judge needed to send a message not just to the general public but to Presta.

The prosecutor and the judge are not related.

Presta ran for another term as mayor while under indictment, the prosecutor noted, and he only resigned from the job one day before he pleaded guilty to bribery and tax charges. One week after that, the prosecutor wrote, Presta’s son-in-law was appointed interim mayor of the village.

James Durkin also alleged that Presta “continued his involvement in Village business even after his resignation.”

“Those are not the actions of a public official who is remorseful for or chastened by the public disclosure of his criminal conduct,” the prosecutor wrote. “Rather, they indicate a need for specific deterrence to send a message to [Presta] that corruption will not be tolerated.”

Presta also “didn’t come clean” when confronted by federal agents in September 2019 with video that showed him taking the $5,000 bribe, tucked in an envelope, in March 2018.

The money had been put there by the feds.

“He doubled down and said there was no money in the envelope he received,” James Durkin wrote.

Presta took the cash from former SafeSpeed partner Omar Maani. Presta had promised Maani that red-light tickets in Crestwood would, in Maani’s words, “creep up higher.” Presta also bragged about the number of tickets issued in February 2018.

“You got a new sheriff in town,” Presta told Maani.

Maani was charged in 2020 with a bribery conspiracy and entered into a deferred-prosecution deal, agreeing to cooperate with the feds.

SafeSpeed has not been charged with wrongdoing. The company said in a statement Monday it “remains both shocked and saddened that one of its former colleagues was engaged in criminal conduct and recruited outside individuals to help further his self-serving activities. Their actions were clearly in their own self-interest and done without SafeSpeed’s knowledge and undercut the important work SafeSpeed does.”

“The criminal activity of a few individuals does not and should not reflect the values and integrity of SafeSpeed, its employees, and its clients.”

As part of his guilty plea last fall, Presta also admitted filing false tax returns for 2015 and 2018, and that he failed to file a tax return for 2014. Presta cost the IRS $72,307 and the Illinois Department of Revenue $3,427, prosecutors say.

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