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Illinois comptroller calls red-light camera program ‘broken and morally corrupt,’ plans to halt ticket collections

Susana Mendoza’s agency has been helping dozens of suburbs collect from red-light violators who haven’t paid up. But no longer. She’s urging towns to consider scrapping their red-light cameras altogether.

A red-light camera on Chicago’s North Side.
The city of Chicago got its first red-light cameras in 2003. In 2006, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing them in the suburbs.
Sun-Times Media

Since 2012, the Illinois Comptroller’s office has served as a sort of collection agency for communities that are trying to get motorists to pay their red-light tickets.

The comptroller’s tool: Deducting the amount owed in outstanding tickets from state-income tax refunds due to the violators — with about $11 million collected this way on behalf of 60 Chicago suburbs in 2019 alone — and forwarding most of the take to the towns while keeping a small cut.

But with federal investigators looking into red-light contractor SafeSpeed over allegations of pay-to-play — amid revelations about politically connected sales representatives for the company landing juicy commissions — Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza said her agency will no longer perform this function.

“The comptroller’s office isn’t going to be in the business” of helping “a program that’s broken and morally corrupt,” Mendoza said in a recent interview.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, whose agency will stop helping towns go after red-light fines. Her agency has been deducting the amount owed in outstanding tickets from state-income tax refunds due to violators.
Nader Issa/Chicago Sun-Times file photo

And she’s encouraging any town with red-light cameras to think about whether they should keep them at all.

“They should revisit their programs entirely,” Mendoza said. “I don’t think it’s good public policy and I think it’s time it ends.”

She said months of headlines about the ongoing federal corruption investigation and SafeSpeed led to the decision to stop collections, effective Feb. 6.

Mendoza said it’s clear to her that red-light cameras aren’t solely about safety — as many public officials insist — but are about squeezing money out of motorists.

“It’s more of a money angle,” she said. It’s “a system open to corruption.”

And drivers hit with the tickets — which can cost $100 apiece and compound if not paid in a timely way — are too often poor and unable to afford them, Mendoza said.

SafeSpeed co-CEO Nikki Zollar has denied the company enlisted payoffs or did anything wrong, and nobody from the business has been charged with a crime.

Nikki Zollar, co-CEO of SafeSpeed.
Still from company website video

Zollar and another one of her companies together donated $16,500 to Mendoza’s campaign funds in 2018 and 2019, including during her unsuccessful run for Chicago mayor, state records show.

“With our policy decisions, we don’t ever look at who’s giving donations on the other side,” said Mendoza spokesman Abdon Pallasch. “At this point there’s no plans to give back prior years’ donations.”

The city of Chicago got its first red-light cameras in 2003. In 2006, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing them in the suburbs. In 2012, another law took effect allowing the comptroller to collect outstanding ticket payments if towns want the help. Mendoza, who took over her agency in 2016, inherited the practice.

In 2017, the Chicago Tribune reported on controversial efforts by SafeSpeed to install red-light cameras in Oakbrook Terrace — efforts opposed by state bureaucrats but supported by state Sen. Martin Sandoval, whose campaign fund SafeSpeed donated to heavily.

On Sept. 24, Sandoval’s home and offices were searched by the feds, and SafeSpeed was listed on a search warrant.

The feds also seized $60,000 from the home of Oakbrook Terrace’s mayor last fall, according to a federal record that does not explain the origins or significance of the cash.

In 2018, the comptroller collected for 54 communities using SafeSpeed or its competitors. In 2019, the number was 60, and about $11 million was hauled in, with the state agency keeping $20 per ticket, amounting to about $1 million, according to Mendoza’s office.

The agency will continue to deduct other debts, including back child support, from state income tax refunds, officials said.

Aurora, Hoffman Estates, Olympia Fields and River Forest are among the towns the comptroller’s office collects for, as is Summit.

That southwest suburb was among the towns visited by the feds Sept. 26, when Summit Mayor Sergio Rodriguez was interviewed about, among other things, his town’s contract with SafeSpeed, the Chicago Sun-Times has reported.

Another person interviewed separately that week by agents was Patrick Doherty, chief of staff to Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski — who doubles as McCook’s mayor and whose Village Hall offices were raided Sept. 26.

Patrick Doherty, chief of staff to Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski.
Sun-Times Media

Doherty moonlighted as a sales representative for SafeSpeed and has said agents asked him about a development company that is run by SafeSpeed investor Omar Maani and was involved in low-income housing projects that received taxpayer subsidies.

Doherty has acknowledged getting a “small percentage” from “every ticket that’s paid” in certain communities using SafeSpeed. That appears to be common practice for the company — giving a cut of ticket revenue to consultants who help land deals with municipalities.

That appears to be the model for the company: Giving a cut of ticket revenue to consultants who help ink deals with municipalities, though Zollar has told the Sun-Times that Summit is a rare exception, for it pays no salesperson a commission.

Worth Township Supervisor John O’Sullivan was another SafeSpeed sales rep who, as the Sun-Times reported, was part of an effort to pressure Oak Lawn police to sustain more red-light violations against drivers — which would mean more revenue for SafeSpeed, which had a contract with the south suburb.

Oak Lawn officials recently cut ties with SafeSpeed and are considering ending their red-light program altogether.

In Alsip, federal agents contacted Alsip Mayor John Ryan on Sept. 26 to ask about SafeSpeed, which village officials had decided to hire, though a contract isn’t yet finalized.