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Ex-City Hall insider found guilty in red-light camera trial

Ex-City Hall insider John Bills spent a decade pocketing piles of cash bribes, jet-setting across the country and living it up in chic hotels as he rigged Chicago’s red-light camera program to favor crooked business executives from Arizona.

But it took a federal jury less than one day to convict him on 20 counts of fraud, extortion, bribery and other crimes — all of which could send him to prison for the next 10 years of his life.

The verdict set in motion familiar pageantry at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Bills, 54, watched stoically as the jury was polled. Then he rushed out of the courthouse, leaving defense lawyer Nishay Sanan to insist Bills has been framed and will keep fighting to prove his innocence. U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon called it a “sad and a heavy day.”

Meanwhile, one juror told reporters the two-week trial did nothing to change his opinion of Chicago politics

“What I thought before, I think today,” Mike Woerner, a former Hinsdale village president, said. “That stuff happens.”

In Bills’ case, that “stuff” included cash bribes quietly passed in envelopes at Manny’s Deli and Schaller’s Pump, insider information revealed over drinks at the John Hancock Center and secretly recorded conversations hinting at a conspiracy at the center of Chicago’s much-maligned red-light camera program.

Now, Bills faces a significant penalty at his sentencing hearing May 5. Sanan acknowledged his client could be looking at more than a decade in prison. Fardon, Chicago’s top federal law enforcement official, personally participated in Bills’ prosecution. He called public corruption “a disease.”

Bills used his role as assistant commissioner in the Chicago Department of Transportation to help Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. cheat its way into $131 million in red-light camera contracts between 2002 and 2011. In return, the company showered him with more than $18,000 in posh hotel stays, fancy dinners, computers, cigars and the use of a $177,000 Arizona condo. It also hired a buddy of Bills’ to pass him $560,000 in bribes.

The feds put Bills’ three co-conspirators — former Redflex CEO Karen Finley, ex-Redflex Vice President Aaron Rosenberg and Bills’ pal Martin O’Malley — on the stand to help prove their case. Even though all three are “criminals,” Fardon said other witnesses and thousands of documents corroborated their testimony.

Sanan still tried to savage their credibility in front of the jury. And it had an effect.

“That was difficult, choosing to believe people that were confessed liars,” Woerner said.

But Woerner said he “ultimately” believed all three. After Bills helped Redflex land its initial contract with the city in May 2003, Bills joined its team for a celebratory dinner in Los Angeles. Bills told Rosenberg “it was time for him to get his,” the former VP testified. Redflex then hired O’Malley for a customer services job because he was “John’s guy,” according to Finley. And O’Malley said he passed $560,000 of his bonuses and commissions to Bills.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel canceled Redflex’s contract in 2013 after the Chicago Tribune first published allegations about the bribery scheme.

Sanan tried to convince jurors those cash bribes really went to lobbyists on the Redflex payroll with ties to Emanuel, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and former Mayor Richard M. Daley. He stood behind that theory Tuesday.

“Redflex’s paperwork is full of information that shows where this money was going, and it was not going to John Bills,” Sanan said.

But Fardon called Sanan’s theory “malarkey” when the defense attorney first advanced it in the courtroom, and the top fed told reporters Tuesday “there’s nothing that we don’t look at and consider.”

“When public officials violate the public trust to line their own pockets, we’re going to be there and we’re going to hold them accountable,” Fardon said.