Illinois House committee advances red-light camera ban in wake of Sen. Martin Sandoval pleading guilty to taking bribes from the industry
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Illinois House committee advances red-light camera ban in wake of Sen. Martin Sandoval pleading guilty to taking bribes from the industry

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Martin Sandoval

Former Democratic state Sen. Martin Sandoval of Chicago is joined by Republican state Rep. Margo McDermed of Mokena at a news conference May 15 in Springfield advocating for greater infrastructure spending on roads and bridges. Sandoval was named Monday along with others in a a racketeering lawsuit that seeks to void tens of thousands of traffic citations issued through red light cameras at intersections in Chicago-area suburbs. 

An Illinois House committee voted unanimously Wednesday to advance a measure that would ban controversial red-light traffic cameras in many towns across the Chicago area and outside St. Louis.

The full House in 2015 approved a similar measure, also sponsored by Republican state Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills. But it was blocked in the Senate by then-Sen. Martin Sandoval, who pleaded guilty in federal court last week to accepting at least $70,000 in bribes to act as a “protector” for red-light camera company SafeSpeed.

The House Transportation Committee voted 11-0 to advance McSweeney’s bill, which would ban the cameras in non-home rule communities in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, Will, Madison and St. Clair counties, to the full House for a vote. Non-home rule communities -- generally those with fewer than 25,000 residents -- have more limited powers under state law.

McSweeney said he favors banning all red-light cameras and has introduced legislation that would do so, but he said this proposal is a first step.

“This was the bill I was given the opportunity to call,” McSweeney said.

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Despite the controversy surrounding red-light cameras, the House proposal faces opposition from numerous municipalities, in addition to the industry itself.

It should be up to local leaders, regardless of whether or not their communities have home rule authority, to decide whether they want to pursue having red-light cameras to make sure roads safer, said Brad Cole, executive director of the Illinois Municipal League.

“We don’t think these should be prohibited,” Cole said. “The people who were taking bribes or paying bribes or soliciting bribes should go to jail.”

Cole said his organization supports another McSweeney bill that would direct the Illinois Department of Transportation to study red-light cameras.

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Although Sandoval mentioned SafeSpeed by name when asked to explain in his own words the crime to which he was pleading guilty, the company has denied knowledge of the bribes.

SafeSpeed has acknowledged it’s the firm named in the federal plea deal but has said it did not know about, let alone authorize, any bribes paid by the company representative, whom the firm identified as co-owner Omar Maani, a Burr Ridge businessman. The firm said it cut ties over the weekend with Maani over his “alleged criminal activity.” Maani is cooperating with the investigation, according to court records.

Sandoval, former chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, admitted in his 27-page plea agreement that he agreed in 2016 to block legislation adverse to the red-light camera industry in exchange for $20,000 in annual campaign contributions. McSweeney’s previous red-light bill, mentioned in the federal search warrant executed at Sandoval’s Capitol office last year, was still pending in the Senate at the time.

Sandoval received two $10,000 campaign contributions in September 2016, first from Triad Consulting Services, a separate firm run by SafeSpeed CEO Nikki Zollar, and three weeks later from the company itself, state campaign finance records show.

The bill passed out of the House committee Wednesday is one of several pertaining the red-light cameras currently under consideration in the General Assembly.

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza announced earlier this year that her office would no longer assist municipalities in collecting unpaid red-light camera fines.

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