Former Chicago transportation official John Bills was found guilty by a jury Tuesday of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts to steer more than $100 million in red light camera contracts to an Arizona-based company.
The one-time number two official in the city's transportation department was accused of more than 20 counts of bribery, mail fraud and tax evasion for accepting what prosecutors say was "buckets and buckets of cash" from Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., the Phoenix-based company that implemented Chicago's first red light camera program. A jury on Tuesday found him guilty on all counts.
"I do think that today's verdict stand for the proposition that when you seek truth, you can find justice," U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon said. "And I do believe public corruption is a disease. It is a cancer. It is insidious."
Authorities alleged Bills fixed a key commission vote to secure an initial deal for Redflex around 2003. Chicago signed other contracts later as it expanded its red-light enforcement program. Much-vilified by drivers, the program uses cameras to automatically record and ticket drivers who run red lights.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel canceled Redflex's contract in 2013 following the Chicago Tribune's reports of the alleged bribery scheme. Bills retired from his job as the city's managing deputy commissioner of transportation in 2011, and he was charged in 2014.
The feds called Bills a “greedy public official” who reaped an “almost nonstop flow of benefits” by helping Redflex cheat its way into $131 million in city contracts between 2002 and 2011.
Redflex retiree Martin O'Malley pleaded guilty to his role in the bribery conspiracy along with former Redflex CEO Karen Finely.
But Bills' attorney said his client had nowhere near the power the government gives him credit for.
“A guy like John Bills cannot sell a $100 million contract to anybody,” defense attorney Nishay Sanan said. “He does not have that power, influence or control.”
Instead, he said Bills is being scapegoated for corruption at a higher level.
“There was no bribes to John Bills,” Sanan said. “I am not saying there's no bribes in this case. There was no benefit to John Bills. There was no cash, gifts, hotel rooms. It doesn't matter what the government says, none of it went to John Bills.”
Still, federal authorities point to thousands of documents and checks that they say implicate Bills at the expense of taxpayers
"Redflex paid for it all, but ask yourself who really paid,” Fardon told the jury Monday.
“He did the job he was tasked to do, and he did it in order for the city of Chicago to generate over $400 million in revenue,” Sanan said.
On Monday, the mayor distanced himself from the original photo enforcement program.
“The contract that was awarded that you were talking about was awarded during a prior and different administration,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in response to a question about the program. “First questions they were thrown out, a different firm was brought in.”
That program has proven widely unpopular with residents, and Bills' attorney worried that may have had an impact on the jury's verdict.
“We are very concerned about that. Back when this case was started, we asked for this case to be moved to Las Vegas where there are no red light cameras,” Sanan said. “There are red light cameras all over this country. In the back of people's minds, that is going to be a factor in how they go with this."