State Sen. Emil Jones III hit with federal bribery charges tied to red-light camera investigation

The son of former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. is also charged with lying to the FBI.

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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 Sen. Emil Jones III, D-Chicago, represents the 14th Senate District, encompassing Far South Side neighborhoods and south suburban Cook County.

AP file

State Sen. Emil Jones III has been hit with federal bribery charges three years after he allegedly lied to the FBI about whether he’d agreed to protect the politically connected red-light camera company SafeSpeed LLC in the Illinois General Assembly.

The South Side Democrat, a deputy majority leader, has served in the Legislature since 2009 and is the son of former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. The younger Jones is also charged for his alleged false statement to the feds Sept. 24, 2019. 

That was the same day agents raided the home and state Capitol offices of then-state Sen. Martin Sandoval, who died in 2020.

Prosecutors filed the charges against Jones III in a document known as an information, which typically signals a defendant’s plan to plead guilty. He would be the second member of the Senate to wind up pleading guilty to a federal crime this year, following Thomas Cullerton.

The timing of the charges creates a scenario where Jones III, who is running for re-election, will likely appear on the November ballot regardless of how his case plays out.

Jones III could not immediately be reached for comment on the charges. But his father said in a statement they “do not reflect the man he is.”

“Everyone knows he is an honest, hardworking legislator,” the former Senate president said. “I intend to fight with him and stand alongside him throughout this process.”

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon on Tuesday asked Jones III to resign from his leadership post and his role as chair of the Senate’s Licensed Activities committee. The committee chair role carried a stipend of about $10,000.

“These are grave allegations. Members of the Senate and all public officials need to hold themselves to a high ethical standard for the public to have trust and faith in our work,” Harmon said.

State Senate President Don Harmon in 2017.

State Senate President Don Harmon in 2017.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

If Jones III winds up resigning from the Senate entirely, someone would likely then be appointed to serve out his term, which begins in January, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. The Cook County Democratic Party on Wednesday, however, said there is a provision in the Illinois Constitution that would allow for the next appointee to serve for two years — until the next general election in 2024.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said in his own statement that “the Democrat Party of Illinois has become an organized crime family whose only purpose is to shakedown Illinois taxpayers.”

The federal charges 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 III 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 III 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. 

The legislation identified in the charges was filed during a veto session, just before session ended, meaning it was unlikely to move forward. It was viewed by some as a “fetcher bill” — legislation that wasn’t going anywhere but was intended to “fetch” campaign contributions. 

Meanwhile, Jones III has now joined the long list of individuals charged in connection with the feds’ probe of SafeSpeed deals.

Other politicians who have faced charges related to SafeSpeed include Sandoval, former Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta, former Worth Township Supervisor John O’Sullivan and former Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci.

Also charged separately is Maani, who played a central role in many of the schemes outlined by prosecutors. Maani struck a so-called deferred-prosecution agreement with the feds in 2020 and confirmed his cooperation with them.

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

Jones III’s father led the Illinois Senate from 2003 to 2009. He considered himself to be former President Barack Obama’s “political godfather” — having taken Obama under his wing when he served in the state Senate. The elder Jones served 35 years in the General Assembly.

State Sen. Emil Jones III (left) with his father, former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. in 2010.

State Sen. Emil Jones III (left) with his father, former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr.

Sun-Times file

Raising many eyebrows, Jones Jr. appointed his son, then 31, to his Senate seat in 2009. Jones III has run unopposed since 2012. At the time of his appointment, Jones Jr.’s allies rallied for his son.

State Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, a longtime Jones Jr. ally and inheritor of a political legacy himself, said he saw nothing wrong with Jones III getting a chance to hold his father’s Senate seat.

“Give him a chance to prove himself,” Rita said in 2008.

Jones III worked for the state between May 1999 and November 2006, when he briefly left the payroll. Despite not having a college degree, he was hired in April 2007 as an administrator for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity — a job that paid $59,436 annually. 

He serves on eight Illinois Senate committees, including public safety, where he is a vice-chair.

Jones III represents the 14th Senate District, which encompasses Far South Side neighborhoods and south suburban Cook County, including Alsip, Oak Forest, Crestwood, and Blue Island. After redistricting, the district will stretch into other swaths of southwest suburbs, such as Orland Park.

Illinois State Board of Elections records show Jones III had $136,936.72 cash on hand at the end of June. He has since taken in $57,500 in contributions.

Editor’s note: This report was updated to include comments from the Cook County Democratic Party about the process to replace Jones III should he resign.

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