Over the past several months, the latest Illinois red-light camera corruption case has unfolded. The 2014 Redflex bribery scandal preceded the current mess. Several company and public officials went to jail, and in 2017, Redflex paid the city of Chicago a $20 million settlement. You would have thought that the state had learned its lessons, but nope. No doubt this is due in large part to drivers taking the hit, much more than the city.
The ongoing, highly public corruption is why many citizens distrust the government. When we elect someone to public office, we expect them to uphold their oath to the people, not profit off the backs of taxpayers. Call us naïve, but democracy best works when those elected continue to have the public trust. Many honest men and women, of course, run for office and, when elected, work hard for us.
Chicago State Senator Martin Sandoval did not. In November, he resigned from his state seat because he knew what was coming. For years, he kept bills to ban red-light cameras out of the transportation committee he chaired, because he was greedy and dishonest. He raked in the bucks from SafeSpeed, an Illinois home-grown camera company.
SafeSpeed CEO Nikki Zollar has denied any wrongdoing. She stated that “We don’t pay people off.” According to the company’s website, it has contracts with more than 30 Illinois municipalities. Despite Zollar’s protestations, the company and some of its investors were large campaign contributors to Sandoval.
In January, Sandoval entered into a plea agreement in federal court for taking $250,000 in bribes and for tax evasion. He has indicated that he will cooperate with federal investigators in their ongoing investigation of additional political corruption. He told reporters he was “deeply ashamed” and faces 13 years in prison.
Sandoval made his dirty money from red-light cameras outside the Chicago area. In 2008, fewer than 90 cameras outside of Chicago generated $5.4 million. By 2018, more than 300 cameras were responsible for issuing more than $56 million in violations. Generally, cities and towns receive anywhere between 30 to 60 percent of the cash generated from citations with the camera. Companies keep the rest of the loot.
In 2017, an exhaustive Chicago Tribune investigation unveiled information that many of the Chicago suburban cameras were placed at some of the safest intersections. Due to state law, intersections on state highways had to be approved by the Illinois Department of Transportation, which had drafted a policy in 2006. Lobbyists and “an unnamed lawmaker close to red-light camera firms” helped redefine the process of how intersections were selected for cameras and that the original 2006 policy was never implemented. The Tribune found that the state’s draft criteria would have only approved cameras for three of the 184 intersections on state routes.
Study after study has shown red-light cameras increase rear-end crashes because driver’s slam on their brakes to avoid a citation. According to the IllinoisPolicy.org website, local governments are no longer talking about safety any more when it comes to these devices—officials need the money citations generate to help pay for basic services.
The city of Chicago also appears to be in the same predicament. Between January 2008 and September 2019, city of Chicago RLCs banked $672.4 million total. In 2017, the city made $54.4 million in revenue.
Motorists have been fighting back, though. The Windy City settled in 2017 a nearly $40 million class-action lawsuit that alleged the program violated due process. Also, in 2017 another lawsuit was filed that claimed Chicago’s program is unconstitutional since it fails to satisfy several state law requirements. Despite all the lawsuits and other issues with RLCs, the city just can’t quit using money from citations to balance its budget.
Bipartisan bill HB3927 is currently gaining momentum in the House. If passed, it would ban red-light cameras plus deny cities home rule power in this area.
Will elected officials have the courage to pass this legislation?
After the many scandals, this policing for profit scheme has got to go in Illinois and every other town in the US that has red-light cameras.