State Sen. Emil Jones III pleads not guilty to federal bribery charges

Jones allegedly agreed to protect the red-light camera company SafeSpeed from legislation in the Illinois General Assembly in exchange for $5,000 and a job for an unnamed associate. Then, the state senator allegedly lied to the FBI about it.

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Illinois State Sen. Emil Jones III, D-Chicago, speaks to members of the media after stepping out of the closed door negotiations for the next Senate President at the Illinois State Capitol, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, in Springfield, Ill.

Illinois State Sen. Emil Jones III

AP file

State Sen. Emil Jones III pleaded not guilty Friday to federal bribery charges after he was accused of agreeing to protect the politically connected red-light camera company SafeSpeed LLC in the Illinois General Assembly.

The hearing before U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood took place by phone, making Jones the latest federally charged Illinois politician to avoid the traditional walk-of-shame through the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Remote hearings became routine amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prosecutors filed the charges against the South Side Democrat in a document known as an information, which typically signals a defendant’s plan to plead guilty. Jones on Friday also waived his constitutional right to be indicted by a grand jury — another sign of an eventual guilty plea.

But Jones’ defense attorneys, Reggie Harris and Zeke Katz, said in a later statement that Jones “maintains his innocence.”

“The senator respectfully asks the public not to rush to judgment,” the attorneys wrote. “Ours is a legal system founded upon the principle that persons accused of crimes are innocent unless and until proven guilty by competent evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt.”

After the charges against Jones became public Tuesday, Jones resigned as chair of the Senate Licensed Activities Committee. He has so far ignored a call from Gov. J.B. Pritzker to resign from the Senate entirely.

Jones is running unopposed for reelection in November.

He is now the latest politician to face charges related to SafeSpeed. The list includes the late ex-state Sen. Martin Sandoval, former Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta, former Worth Township Supervisor John O’Sullivan and former Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci.

Jones is also among at least 11 current and former members of the Illinois General Assembly charged with federal crimes since 2019.

SafeSpeed has not been charged with wrongdoing, and it has portrayed a former partner involved in the allegations as a rogue actor. It said in a statement Tuesday it “remains both shocked and saddened that one of its former colleagues was engaged in criminal conduct.”

The charges against Jones point to a Senate bill filed in February 2019 requiring a statewide study of automated traffic law enforcement systems, including red-light cameras.

The feds say Jones agreed that, in exchange for benefits provided by SafeSpeed partner Omar Maani, he would work to limit such studies to systems used in Chicago, “thereby excluding from study” the systems “in numerous other municipalities” served by SafeSpeed.

Jones also allegedly told Maani he would protect SafeSpeed from legislation in the General Assembly in exchange for $5,000 and a job for an unnamed associate. Then, the state senator allegedly lied to the FBI about his role in the scheme on Sept. 24, 2019.

That was the same day agents raided Sandoval’s home and state Capitol offices.

Maani has been charged separately. In 2020, he struck a so-called deferred-prosecution agreement with the feds and confirmed his cooperation with prosecutors.

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles

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