Speed Cameras

Bribery Convictions Won't Shut Off Chicago's Red Light Cameras

Former city commissioner gets 10 years for taking $2 million bribe, while Chicago made $285 million from red light cams last year.


Jose M. Osorio/TNS/Newscom

A former Chicago city official is heading to prison after getting caught taking $2 million in bribes from a red light camera company.

John Bills, former deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, was sentenced on Thursday to 10 years in federal prison for taking bribes from Redflex Traffic Systems, an Australia-based company. Bills was found guilty in January of having accepted cash, a new Mercedes car and an Arizona condo from Redflex in return for helping the company secure a $100 million contract with the city of Chicago.

"Every bribe that is taken, every kickback that is tendered or received, every amount of cash that is pocketed further erodes the rule of law," U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall said, according to the Chicago Tribune. "It erodes faith in our government, and that takes years to rebuild."

The Tribune said the sentence was one of the toughest ever handed down to a non-elected public official convicted of corruption.

Bills will soon have company behind bars. Martin O'Malley (no, not that Martin O'Malley), a personal friend of Bills' who admitted acting as a "bagman" to deliver Manilla envelops full of cash to Bills on behalf of Redflex, is scheduled to be sentenced for his role in the scheme later this month. Also convicted and awaiting sentencing is former Redflex CEO Karen Finley.

Before the contract was terminated by the city in 2013 (after the Tribune exposed the how Redflex had bought influence from city officials), it was the most lucrative red light camera deal in the country. At one point, Chicago's red light cameras provided 20 percent of Redflex's revenue, even though the company operated similar automatic enforcement devices in dozens of American cities. Redflex also benefitted from the publicity of having a contract with Chicago and used that deal to help convince other cities to acquire similar programs, prosecutors said when they brought the case against Bills in 2014.

The bribery convictions won't stop Chicago from using the lucrative red light cameras.

In 2015 alone, Chicago made more than $285 million from more than 2.2 million tickets issued by the red light cameras installed at 149 intersections across the city. Chicago also has more than 300 speed cameras that bring in about $15 million in revenue each year.

Even though city officials say the cameras are meant to improve safety at dangerous intersections, there's little evidence they actually do that. A Chicago Tribune investigation published in 2014 found that 40 percent of the cameras installed during Chicago's decade-long contract with RedFlex were actually increasing the frequency of traffic accidents and resulting injuries. Studies in other cities—including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Portland, Ore., and elsewhere—have found a similar uptick in rear-end crashes at intersections with red light cameras, likely caused by drivers who are slamming on the brakes to avoid a ticket instead of proceeding safely through the intersection.

That's just what happens when the cameras are working properly. An apparent malfuction affecting some of Chicago's red light cameras in the summer of 2011 resulted in huge spikes in the number of tickets issued—one camera spit out 560 tickets in 12 days after issuing just 100 tickets in the previous six months. The city's traffic court tossed out about half of those tickets, but the whole incident was made more suspicious by the fact that Redflex did not notify city officials that anything unusual had happened (officials claimed they learned about the problem when reporters asked about it).

Bills isn't the first person to go to jail for helping red light camera companies grease the skids.

John Raphael, a lobbyist for Redflex, was sentenced to prison last week for soliciting bribes to city councilmen in Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio. Shawn Brown, former mayor of Saint Peters, Missouri, served a year in prison after taking a bribe from Redflex in 2006. Jay Morris Specter, another Redflex lobbyist, was convicted in 2007 of committing fraud.