‘Trying to Put the Puzzle Together': Inside the Investigation Into One of the Biggest Corruption Cases in Chicago History

Long hours and tedious work pay off in one of the biggest corruption cases in Chicago history

Viewers of programs like “Quantico” and “The X Files” might be surprised to learn that FBI work is not always about midnight surveillance, secret cameras, and global intrigue.

Frequently, it comes down to thousands of documents, months of research, and literally scores of one-on-one conversations. That was the case with the City of Chicago’s recent red light camera case, which became one of the largest scandals in the city’s history.

“We interviewed well over a hundred people,” says the FBI’s Craig Henderson, one of two agents assigned almost exclusively to the case. “And some of those people more than once.”

City transportation official John Bills was charged with taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, to make certain that a company called Redflex obtained, and then kept, a lucrative contract to install and maintain Chicago’s network of red light cameras. Eventually, the system became the biggest of its kind in the United States, and represented 20 percent of Redflex’s profits. 

But to get it, Redflex officials paid Bills an estimated $800,000 in bribes and favors over the course of a decade, including an Arizona condo, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.

“This is one of the biggest public corruption cases there is in terms of the amounts of money we’re talking about here,” says agent Brian Etchell. “For one thing, this unlike other bribery schemes went on for about nine years. This isn’t just a one-time payment and you’re done. This went on for a long time.”

Most baffling of all, were the dozens of trips and high end purchases Bills appeared to have made using other people’s money. In the end, the agents determined he would frequently convince friends to purchase plane tickets and other perks with their credit cards, which he would immediately reimburse with cash from his ill-gotten gains.

“A lot of times,” Etchell said, “the aha moment comes when you are talking to co-workers who bring up the fact that they purchased something for Bills on their credit card, and he paid them cash.”

“No matter how high tech an investigation gets, or how many documents you review, the bread and butter of an FBI agent is still the interview,” Henderson said. “By going out and talking to all these witnesses, we were able to close the ends on the investigation.”

Key to the case was the cooperation of Redflex’s accused bagman, Martin O’Malley. The two agents said O’Malley’s cooperation came quickly.

“We felt that was really a watershed moment in the investigation,” Etchell said. “I think the evidence we presented to him was overwhelming, and I believe he saw that it was in his best interests.” 

So, another official falls in Chicago’s long sordid history of corruption. Does that serve as a warning to those who might be tempted to follow a similar path?

“We’re not naïve enough to think that corruption is going to completely end,” said Etchell. “But we work every day to mitigate it and get it to the lowest level possible.” 

“Greed is quite an aphrodisiac,” Henderson adds. “For some of these people, greed and money—and they continue to do it, and we’ll continue to investigate it and weed it out.” 

Oh and one other thing. Corruption, when discovered, draws the full resources of multiple agencies.

“This case does not get made if not for the help of the IRS, the City of Chicago Inspector General’s office, and the U.S. Attorney’s office,” Etchell said. “They were all critical in making this happen.”

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