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Corrupt Chicago official convicted of 20 counts in red light camera bribery case

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John Bills, a former Chicago transportation official, walks outside the federal building in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, after a jury returned with a guilty verdict on all 20 counts for taking bribes to steer $100 million in red-light camera contracts to Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic System. (James Foster/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
John Bills, a former Chicago transportation official, walks outside the federal building in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, after a jury returned with a guilty verdict on all 20 counts for taking bribes to steer $100 million in red-light camera contracts to Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic System. (James Foster/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)


Jan. 27–In a sweeping victory for federal authorities, a jury convicted John Bills on Tuesday of all charges, finding that the former Chicago city official took up to $2 million in bribes and gifts in return for steering tens of millions of dollars in red light camera contracts to an Arizona company.

Bills showed no emotion as the verdict was announced in U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall’s courtroom. He hugged his wife, who was in tears.

The largely suburban jury of six men and six women deliberated for less than five hours before convicting Bills on all 20 counts of mail and wire fraud, bribery, extortion, conspiracy and tax evasion charges.

Kendall set May 5 for Bills’ sentencing.

“John is going to continue to fight for his innocence,” his lawyer, Nishay Sanan, vowed outside the courtroom. “The fight is not over. The people who are guilty of this know who they are, (but) we don’t expect them to come forward.”

Speaking to reporters in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon, who led the prosecution, said the guilty verdict wasn’t a “celebratory occasion” for law enforcement but that justice had been done.

“I do believe that public corruption is a disease, it is a cancer, it is insidious,” Fardon said. “It was and is a violation of the public’s trust, and at the end of the day, the taxpayers of the city of Chicago deserve an honest day for an honest dollar from their public servants.”

Asked if Bills’ trial epitomized “the Chicago Way,” Fardon said it was Bills’ lawyer who introduced that theme and he would not expand on it.

“Whether it’s the Chicago Way or not — and I love the city of Chicago — I don’t think corruption is unique to Chicago,” he said. “I think it’s important that law enforcement be there to make sure there is accountability where the public’s trust is violated.”

The scheme was first exposed by the Tribune in 2012 — a fact noted by the only juror who spoke to reporters after the verdict.

“Nationally, we see a lot of the corruption exposed by reporters, and in this case it was the Chicago Tribune,” Michael Woerner, 63, a former Hinsdale village president who lives in Burr Ridge, said when he was asked the big takeaway from the trial. “And at the same time you see all these cuts at newspapers, and you wonder after they are all gone who will be left to look for it?”

The two-week trial offered a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes intrigue at City Hall.

Bills, 54, was charged with accepting lavish gifts, meals and hotel stays along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in a cash-for-cameras bribery scheme that grew Chicago’s network into the most prolific ticket-writing machine in the nation.

Throughout the trial, Sanan, Bills’ lawyer, portrayed his client as a scapegoat who did not have the clout or authority to carry out such a massive scheme.

During closing arguments Monday, Sanan suggested that $2 million in bribes really went to some of Chicago’s most powerful elected officials instead of his client.

“That money went to lobbyists who funneled it upstairs,” he told jurors. “You don’t give that kind of money to a guy like John Bills. You give it to people who can get things done.”

But Fardon called that contention “malarkey.”

“That is baloney, that is crazy,” Fardon told jurors Monday. “The idea that lobbyists were paid to funnel money to people like Mike Madigan and Ed Burke and Rahm Emanuel is pretty grandiose, but there is not one single shred of evidence that supports any of it.”

Fardon’s team presented evidence at trial that Bills met with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and then-Mayor Richard Daley as part of his efforts to help camera vendor Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., but prosecutors have never implicated any elected officials in the scheme.

They did offer evidence that Bills counseled company executives on which well-connected lobbyists to hire to court favor with Daley and Madigan. In addition, they say Bills ordered the admitted bagman in the conspiracy to use bribe money to contribute a total of $5,500 to Madigan’s political war chest as well as to a nonprofit foundation supported by the mayor.

None of the politicians named nor any of the phalanx of connected lobbyists and political consultants hired by Redflex was ever called to testify. Among them were William Filan, Mark Fary, William Griffin, Michael Kasper and Greg Goldner.

Jurors heard from three admitted co-conspirators, including Bills’ bagman and the ousted CEO of Redflex, who are both cooperating with federal authorities in exchange for leniency.

“He doesn’t want to die in jail,” Sanan said of the bagman, Martin O’Malley, 75, who testified that he collected more than $2 million in “commissions” intended for Bills. “Nor does he want to implicate the well-oiled machine of Chicago.”

“He was a salesman before, he’s a salesman now, and he’s trying to sell you a load,” Sanan told jurors.

Pacing about the courtroom as he spoke, Sanan said Bills always used cash he collected from his lucrative side business selling sports tickets and memorabilia, not from any bribery scheme.

“He paid for everything. He paid for the rental cars. He paid for the hotels. He paid for the meals,” Sanan said. “The government’s entire case relies on three admitted liars. They have failed.”

To bolster the testimony of the government’s three key witnesses, Fardon pointed jurors to the shopping cart full of emails, expense reports and other records the prosecution team carted to court each day.

“I like Mr. Sanan, but he misses the point,” Fardon said. “This is not about success and failure. There are no winners in this courtroom today. This case is about one thing: justice.”

Fardon concluded his remarks by talking about Bills’ violation of the public trust.

“Who really paid? Who really paid?” Fardon said. “The citizens of Chicago who deserved an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay — and they got pillaged by this man.”

dkidwell@tribpub.com

jmeisner@tribpub.com

Twitter @jmetr22b

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