Former City Hall insider gets 10 years in red-light camera scam

A former City Hall insider who rigged Chicago’s red-light camera program to favor crooked business executives from Arizona was sentenced to 10 years in prison Monday for his crime.

- A former City Hall insider who rigged Chicago’s red-light camera program to favor crooked business executives from Arizona was sentenced to 10 years in prison Monday for his crime.

John Bills spent a decade pocketing piles of cash bribes, jet-setting across the country and living it up in chic hotels. It took a federal jury less than one day in January to convict him on 20 counts of fraud, extortion, bribery and other crimes.
The 10 years was what federal prosecutors have said he deserved — at minimum. They were open to more, but U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Kendall settled on that number.

Under federal guidelines, he faced up to 21 years and 10 months in prison.

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon represented the government at Monday’s sentencing hearing.

“This was a decade-long scheme to lie, cheat and steal at the expense of taxpayers,” he said.

But defense attorney Nishay Sanan laid out a laundry list of past public corruption sentences in Chicago for the judge, pointing to other appointed officials who received sentences well below the 10 years the feds sought for Bills.

Sanan asked instead for between five and seven years for his client.

“Mr. Bills is not ex-Gov. Blagojevich,” he said.

Then it was Bills’ turn to speak.

“I stand before you and accept responsibility for my unethical actions, poor decisions and unacceptable code of conduct,” he said.

“I have disgraced myself. … I have destroyed a career and reputation that spanned 32 years.”

Testimony at Bills’ two-week trial had revolved around cash bribes quietly passed in envelopes at Manny’s Deli and Schaller’s Pump, insider information revealed over drinks at the John Hancock Center and secretly recorded conversations hinting at a conspiracy at the center of Chicago’s much-maligned red-light camera program.

Bills used his role as assistant commissioner in the Chicago Department of Transportation to help Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. cheat its way into $131 million in red-light camera contracts between 2002 and 2011. In return, the company showered him with more than $18,000 in posh hotel stays, fancy dinners, computers, cigars and the use of a $177,000 Arizona condo.

It also hired a buddy of Bills’ to pass him $560,000 in bribes.

The feds put Bills’ three co-conspirators — former Redflex CEO Karen Finley, ex-Redflex Vice President Aaron Rosenberg and Bills’ pal Martin O’Malley — on the stand to help prove their case. Finley and O’Malley have pleaded guilty and have yet to be sentenced.

After Bills helped Redflex land its initial contract with the city in May 2003, Bills joined its team for a celebratory dinner in Los Angeles. Bills told Rosenberg “it was time for him to get his,” the former VP testified. Redflex then hired O’Malley for a customer services job because he was “John’s guy,” according to Finley. And O’Malley said he passed $560,000 of his bonuses and commissions to Bills.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel canceled Redflex’s contract in 2013 after the Chicago Tribune first published allegations about the bribery scheme.

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