South suburban mayor charged in red-light camera bribery scheme

The mayor of south suburban Crestwood has been indicted on federal charges that he accepted bribes to promote red-light cameras in his village, the latest development in a wide-ranging political corruption probe.

According to federal prosecutors, Lou Presta was caught on a March 2018 recording accepting an envelope with $5,000 cash from a representative of the red-light camera firm SafeSpeed, and then lied to the FBI and IRS when asked about it that September.

Lou Presta, the mayor of Crestwood, speaks to 6th District committee in 2016.

Lou Presta, the mayor of Crestwood, speaks to 6th District committee in 2016. (Zak Koeske / Daily Southtown)

Presta, 69, is charged with three counts of using a facility in interstate commerce in aid of bribery and official misconduct, two counts of willfully filing a false income tax return, one count of willfully failing to file an income tax return and one count of making false statements to the FBI and IRS.

Presta, who has been mayor since 2013, could not immediately be reached for comment.

State Board of Elections records showed that Presta’s campaign committee made an unusual filing Friday morning. Citizens for Presta filed an amended report disclosing that in March 2018, a then-SafeSpeed representative provided him “election day workers and expenses” collectively worth $5,000. The connection to Presta’s criminal charges is unclear.

The red-light ticketing cameras in Crestwood are among the most lucrative in the region, a Tribune investigation found. The story was published the month before prosecutors said Presta was recorded accepting the envelope with $5,000 in it.

The Tribune also reported in October 2019 that federal authorities were looking into Presta. At the time, he said he’d done nothing wrong and hadn’t spoken to federal authorities. But on Friday, authorities said that Presta was interviewed by the FBI and IRS the previous month, an interview in which he allegedly said there was no money in the envelope, according to the indictment.

During Presta’s tenure, Crestwood settled lingering legal actions over how previous penny-pinching officials repeatedly and secretly put toxic water into the village water system. But the village also inked a deal with clout-heavy red light vendor SafeSpeed for cameras, and the Tribune found the suburb quickly became the most prolific ticket-generator in the region.

The analysis found the suburb’s SafeSpeed system brought in roughly $8,000-a-day from right-on-red violations at an intersection at Cicero Avenue at Cal Sag Road. Cameras there issued roughly 100 tickets a day, almost all rolling right turns on red. A long-running, class-action lawsuit has alleged the intersection didn’t even qualify for cameras to be placed there under state law.

Presta has told the Tribune that he supported the cameras to improve public safety.

SafeSpeed, its backers and their firms became prolific campaign donors, including to Presta’s campaign fund, starting four days after he signed the lucrative camera contract in 2014. Since then, his campaign fund has received at least $14,000 from SafeSpeed or its backers.

That included receiving $300 worth of unspecified material for a golf outing from what was called the “Omar Cigar Company.” The fund listed the company’s address as the same one for a Countryside cigar shop by a different name that’s noted in a federal search warrant and is a known hangout for many others named in the warrant, including Omar Maani, a longtime SafeSpeed official who donated to Presta’s campaign.

On the eve of Presta’s indictment, Presta’s campaign fund filed an amended campaign finance disclosure form that claimed that, on March 13, 2018, Maani provided Presta an “in-kind” contribution tallied at $5,000.

In-kind contributions are defined as “goods or services provided” to a candidate — not cash — according to a state handbook on required disclosures, but Presta’s Friday filing described the 2018 contribution as “election day workers and expenses,” without further explanation. Regardless, state law requires such contributions to be publicly disclosed within a week.

Maani was a prominent figure in the case against then-state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat who pleaded guilty in federal court in late January to accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to act as a “protector” in Springfield for red-light camera company SafeSpeed.

SafeSpeed has said it did not know about or authorize any bribes paid by Maani, a one-time co-owner. SafeSpeed officials said the company has since cut ties with Maani, who is cooperating with the federal investigation, according to court records.

SafeSpeed’s business has relied on getting suburban mayors and aldermen to let it install cameras for a cut of the proceeds, and then persuading the Illinois Department of Transportation to allow cameras on busy state routes.

The company’s business model requires relationships with politicians, and it hired well-connected lobbyist Victor Reyes’ firm, the Roosevelt Group. In addition, the Tribune found more than $450,000 in political contributions to over 100 political funds by SafeSpeed, founder Nikki Zollar, company principal Maani, and their related firms.

Beyond hiring lobbyists and making campaign contributions, which must be publicly disclosed, the Tribune previously reported how SafeSpeed put public sector workers and officials on its payroll, which state law does not require it disclose.

Among them was Patrick Doherty, indicted in February on allegations he conspired to pay bribes to a relative of an Oak Lawn trustee in 2017 to get lucrative red-light cameras installed there. SafeSpeed said it had no knowledge of the bribes.

Another official pushing SafeSpeed cameras to suburbs was then-Worth Township Supervisor John O’Sullivan. Presta previously told the Tribune that O’Sullivan “introduced” SafeSpeed to the village. O’Sullivan’s arrangement is being questioned as part of the class-action lawsuit. He left the township post amid the probe.

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