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Feds focus on politically connected red-light camera company in suburban investigation

Federal agents were asking about SafeSpeed, LLC as they blitzed several southwest suburban towns last week.

Red-light cameras at a Melrose Park intersection.
Sun-Times staff/File photo

Federal agents who blitzed several southwest suburban towns last week were asking questions about a politically connected red-light camera company, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

The Chicago-based company, SafeSpeed, LLC, says on its website that it’s a “proud partner of over 30 Illinois municipalities.”

As part of the wide-ranging investigation, the feds executed search warrants at the village halls of McCook and Lyons last week as well as the insurance agency office of Lyons Mayor Chris Getty. The feds also interviewed the mayors of Summit and Crestwood, which has not been previously reported.

SafeSpeed’s CEO is Nikki Zollar, a former high-ranking state government official. One of the company’s paid consultants is Patrick Doherty, who is the chief of staff to Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski. Tobolski doubles as the mayor of McCook.

No one has been charged with wrongdoing in relation to the latest sweeps.

Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski
File photo/Sun-Times staff

The feds interviewed Summit Mayor Sergio Rodriguez about SafeSpeed last week, sources said. Summit has an arrangement with the company to operate two red-light cameras at a single intersection in town. Rodriguez did not return phone messages seeking comment.

Agents also made contact with village officials in Crestwood, including Mayor Lou Presta who was interviewed by agents, though about what wasn’t clear. A subpoena was delivered to Crestwood, but it did not concern red light cameras, a municipal attorney said.

Presta declined to comment, referring questions to a village attorney who confirmed the interview. Crestwood does use SafeSpeed for its red-light cameras.

In an interview, Tobolski’s chief of staff, Doherty, said he was interviewed by FBI and IRS agents at his home last week but insisted it was not about SafeSpeed.

Rather, Doherty said, agents asked about another company — run by a SafeSpeed investor, Omar Maani — that’s been involved in low-income housing projects in Cicero and Summit.

Those projects involved the construction of dozens of townhomes and received taxpayer subsidies through the county government, Doherty said.

The Summit mayor also was questioned about Maani’s townhome project in town, sources said.

Maani did not return phone messages for comment. Maani’s father, Khaled Maani, who also is a SafeSpeed investor, said he’s not involved in his son’s other business interests and didn’t know why federal agents were asking about either of the companies.

“As far as I know everything my son does is legitimate, a clean track record . . . and professional,” he said, adding, “As far as I know, SafeSpeed has the finest technology and goes by the rules,” with a commitment to “fight for public safety.”

As for Doherty, he acknowledged he does derive a “small percentage” from “every ticket that’s paid” in certain communities enlisting SafeSpeed, but not Summit.

As a consultant, Doherty said he helps the company make inroads in towns if he can.

Doherty said he doesn’t know whether Tobolski is a target of investigators, or even how Tobolski is holding up ever since agents descended on McCook’s village hall.

That’s because Doherty said he hasn’t seen him or heard from him in about a week.

Tobolski couldn’t be reached for comment. The county commissioner called in sick last week when the feds raided McCook village hall.

SafeSpeed has been generous to Illinois politicians over the years.

Illinois politicians have reported receiving $144,200 in campaign contributions from SafeSpeed since 2011. The company’s largest single donation of $10,000 was given to state Sen. Martin Sandoval in 2016, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Agents last week raided Sandoval’s political offices in Springfield and Cicero and hit his home on the Southwest Side. A heavily redacted warrant released Tuesday for the Springfield search indicated the feds were seeking evidence of kickbacks for official actions as well as information about five unnamed IDOT employees, among other matters.

Men carrying boxes and a bag marked “evidence” leave the Illinois State Capital in Springfield in September.
Men carrying boxes and a bag marked “evidence” leave the Illinois State Capital in Springfield last week.
John O’Connor/AP

The Sandoval raid is tied to the latest federal blitz across the southwest suburbs.

Sandoval was part of a 2017 Chicago Tribune investigation that found he and state Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat, wrote to the Illinois Department of Transportation, encouraging the agency to allow red-light cameras in Oakbrook Terrace where SafeSpeed was hoping to operate.

Both men had accepted campaign donations from SafeSpeed.

Cullerton has since been charged in a “conspiracy” scheme in which he was accused of essentially being a ghost payroller for the Teamsters Union. He is not charged with any wrongdoing regarding SafeSpeed.

Omar Maani, his family members and other related businesses have donated $69,000 to various political campaigns over the years, records show.

Zollar, who held a top position under former Gov. Jim Edgar as well as appointments to the Chicago Board of Elections and Chicago State University, has donated nearly $90,000 to political campaigns over the years. She didn’t return calls.

The Chicago FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment Tuesday.