CN Feb.4, 2016


Here’s a quote from one of David Kidwell’s most recent Tribune stories about Chicago’s red-light camera saga.

For years, city officials have been unable to explain how camera locations were chosen when Bills was running the program.The trial portrayed a brazen scheme in which some of the most important camera placement meetings occurred over corned beef lunches at Manny’s deli, and often ended with a stack of $100 bills passed from bagman to Bills in a manila envelope.

The “Bills” mentioned here is John Bills, who was recently convicted on 20 counts of tax fraud, mail fraud, extortion, conspiracy and bribery.

If you’d like to better understand who John Bills is, and how he got to run the whole program that netted the City 6/10ths of a billion dollars in mailed-in traffic fines, please watch this show.

How did it work?

“He had a handler,” says Kidwell. “Redflex had hired a consultant friend of his in Chicago who was acting at the bagman. He was meeting with the CEO of the company and the top salesman of the company on a regular basis. They bought him a condominium in Arizona near their headquarters. Not only were they giving him cash bribes, they were sending him on vacations and paying for hotel rooms and golf outings and they bought him a car, they bought him a boat, they bought him a condominium in Arizona. All this time he is talking to them about how he was going to expand this and we were going to have speed cameras. We’re going to have more red light cameras. We’re going to have school bus cameras. The list went on and on and on.”

The program billed Chicagoans more than 600 million in fines, but remarkably there was never a study conducted on whether there was a rationale for a given intersection getting a camera. And over the years, thousands of fines were paid for tickets that shouln’t have been issued.

“We have been able to uncover,” Kidwell explains, that “almost every time you turn around there are literally tens of thousands of tickets that should have never been issued in both the Red Light Camera Program and the Speed Camera Program. It essentially illustrates how the people of the City of Chicago have been plugged into a cash machine and the City Hall has walked away in a lot of instances.”

In the course of our discussion we try to define the boundaries of where the press is entitled to have access to City documents, such as memos, emails, texts and phone logs.  Kidwell takes the position that any and all documents should be available for scrutiny, uness specifically exempted for legal reasons – and even those should be released after an appropriate period of time. That even includes documents created during the discussion, or deliberative phase of decision-making.

“What that does,” Kidwell insists, “Is it puts everybody at City Hall on notice. Look, when you say something don’t say something stupid or embarrassing and don’t be corrupt. But it also forces decisions and debate out into the open.”

Needless to say, the Mayor and his attorneys don’t agree. At several points in our discussion, Kidwell says the City’s attitude is “It’s none of your business.”

We ask Kidwell about the infamous interview he had just nine months into Rahm Emanuel’s first term. He was seeking documents, and the Mayor wasn’t being cooperative. It’s a remarkable exchange, and the Tribune later transcribed the full interview and posted it. You can find it HERE.

Also, read a full transcript of this interview HERE:CN transcript Feb 4 2016



About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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