Federal authorities Wednesday arrested a retired Chicago official who managed one of the nation's largest red-light camera programs, accusing him of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, an Arizona condominium and other gifts to steer $124 million in city contracts to Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic Systems.
After allegedly fixing a key commission vote to secure an initial $25 million deal, John Bills, now 52, attended a celebratory dinner and made clear it was now time for him to be paid by Redflex for delivering the contract, a 28-page complaint says. He allegedly told a point of contact-turned-government witness at the dinner, "It's time to make good."
Chicago awarded that contract to Redflex in 2003 and signed others later for the city's first red-light enforcement program, which uses cameras to automatically record and ticket drivers who ran red lights. After 32 years with the city, Bills retired in 2011 as managing deputy commissioner of the city's transportation department.
The latest accusation of bribery is just another page in a long, ignominious history for Chicago and Illinois. Multiple Chicago city council members have been convicted of corruption, and the state's previous two governors — one Democrat and one Republican — were also convicted on corruption-related charges.
At an initial hearing in Chicago Wednesday, Bills was led in by marshals in handcuffs. But after asking if he understood he was charged with one count of bribery, the U.S. magistrate judge agreed to release him pending trial. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.
Outside court, defense attorney Nishay Sanan said his client never took bribes from anyone. He said Redflex faced legal troubles elsewhere and was trying to make Bills "the scapegoat."
"They are trying to cover themselves," he said.
The complaint says the money that went to Bills may have originated with Redflex, but it does not accuse the company of wrongdoing. And in a statement released by company spokeswoman Jody Ryan later Wednesday, Redflex pointed the finger at previous employees, saying it has drawn "a line between our past and today's Redflex."
"As promised, we also fully cooperated with the authorities," it said.
The complaint portrays Bills as cool and calculating, walking his contact through how the payoffs could be made. The unnamed contact — who made a salary, bonuses and commissions from Redflex — withdrew around $650,000 between 2006 and 2011; and the withdrawals corresponded to pricey purchases by Bills, including for a Mercedes-Benz, the complaint says.
During the process of selecting a company for the initial contract, the complaint describes how Bills tossed Redflex photographs that came out badly and included ones for a contract-evaluation committee that came out well. With the other company vying for the contract, he showed mainly poor test shots to the committee, yanking the company's good photos.
The defense lawyer, though, was adamant Bills couldn't have pulled strings in the way the complaint describes.
"Where's his power to do anything?" Sanan asked. "He's not the one to bribe (in Chicago). ... He's not the one to get a contract."
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