Shocking: Red Light Camera Company CEO And Chicago City Official Indicted On Corruption Charges

from the the-chicago-way dept

We’ve long-argued that red light cameras, those little flashy things that ticket you for going through a stop light, have always been way less about safety and almost entirely about generating revenue for municipalities. And, while we’ve covered how corrupted the money-flow of these systems can be, you just have to admire the brazenly “Chicago-way” story of how the windy city got into bed with camera peddlers.

The former chief executive officer of Redflex, a major red light camera (RLC) vendor, has been indicted on federal corruption charges stemming from a contract with the City of Chicago. On Wednesday, in addition to former CEO Karen Finley, government prosecutors also indicted John Bills, former managing deputy commissioner at the Department of Transportation, and Bills’ friend Martin O’Malley, who was hired as a contractor by Redflex.

Now, I can tell you as a native of the area that city officials getting indicted on corruption charges along with the company bribers barely registers as news here any longer. Hell, we send governors to prison like it was the official retirement plan for the office. The charges in this indictment, however, are a special brand of sleazy. Redflex sold the city on the cameras, hired O’Malley as a contractor for $2 million dollars, and O’Malley then sent much of that cash directly back to DoT official John Bills, like some kind of monetary boomerang. Redflex then got into the act directly, because why the hell not.

Via Redflex employees, Bills also acquired a Mercedes and a condominium in Arizona. A May 2014 affidavit written by an FBI special agent suggests that Bills likely used some of this money to purchase and store a boat, buy a car, pay for an addition to his Michigan cabin, pay for his girlfriend’s mortgage, pay his own mortgage, pay his kids’ schools, and hire a divorce attorney over the course of several years.

To be fair to Bills, it costs a lot of money to keep your side-piece living happily while you divorce the mother of your children and update that sweet cabin-pad. Oh, it should also be mentioned that Redflex employees sent Bills on a couple of vacations over half a decade, and by “couple” I mean seventeen. This all adds up to 23 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, bribery, and some additional charges thrown in because screw these guys. And it’s not as though these stupid cameras all this corruption paid for actually, you know, worked. The Chicago Tribune‘s reporting indicates that something like 13,000 bogus tickets were issued to city residents via Redflex cameras, which were dropped in 2013 due in part to this scandal.

But, hey, don’t worry, guys. Redflex is all over this problem.

“Last year we announced aggressive leadership changes, industry leading compliance policies and procedures, and a distinction between our past and present,” Jody Ryan, a spokeswoman, wrote to Ars. “Redflex Traffic Systems is moving forward. Since we announced these changes we have signed, renewed, or executed over 100 contracts. Redflex has cooperated fully with the investigative authorities while maintaining the integrity of our customer programs. Our focus is on making a life-saving difference in the communities we serve across the country.”

Except their cameras don’t do any of that and nobody is going to trust anything coming from the company or city officials about the effectiveness of the cameras, either, what with the details on how the Chicago bid was won by Redflex being revealed. It turns out that Bills actually coached Redflex on how to win the bid, rigged the voting order so that members of the evaluation committee Bills had convinced to vote for Redflex would vote first (indicating broad support to other members), and then had the company hire his buddy, O’Malley, as the Chicago account manager for Redflex.

When it comes to Chicago politics, contracts, and the like, this is as Chicago as it gets. However, given that the whole red light camera thing is a money-making scheme to begin with, the whole concept reeks of corruption. Kill these things off now, please.

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Companies: redflex

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Comments on “Shocking: Red Light Camera Company CEO And Chicago City Official Indicted On Corruption Charges”

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pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

yeah, trying to prevent t-bone accidents is something we shouldn’t try to do.

Though I suspect if you’d probably bitch about having a cop on every corner instead of these cameras…what with the massive tax increase it would require.

Any system run by corrupt people is obviously going to be bad. That doesn’t mean the technology is bad, just the implementation.

Proper oversight solves every issue ever raised against the cameras.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I used to think the same way. I hate seeing people run red lights. The problem is not the technology, but how it’s enacted. The first thing these guys do after installing them is cut down on the yellow light time. After all, if people have enough time to get through when it’s yellow, they won’t get a ticket. The problem with that is people start anticipating the short yellow, so they slam on their brakes the second it goes yellow because they don’t want to get a ticket. The guy behind him can’t react fast enough and you’ve replaced t-bone accidents with rear end accidents. I remember reading at least story where the number of accidents actually increased at some intersections. And finally, these tickets are supposed to be reviewed by an officer to make sure they aren’t mistakes (like someone turning right on red). No one ever does, or if they do, they just blindly accept every single one. After all, more revenue. I think states should make them illegal to install.

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

‘change of light timing’ oversight solves this.

‘tickets not reviewed by officer’ again oversight solves this.

t-bone accidents are much much worse than rear-end accidents. And that ‘slam on the brakes’ behavior is a training issue, not a problem with the system.

If you knew the cameras were at every single intersection you’d learn much faster than if you only encounter them once in a while.

And dropping new technology into a largely untrained (US Drivers) group is going to breed increases in more minor rear-end accidents.

The training issue is a legitimate concern, something that could have been predicted and should be accounted for. But it’s not a fault of the technology.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

The problem is, when the yellow duration time is set in accordance with federal standards most people stop in time (without rear end accidents) and this leads to little or no profit from the installation.

If they were put in place to stop t bones, there would be no concern about profit, only a reduction in t bones. But that is not the case is it? They are only after profit and therefore they intentionally violate the federal standard to increase profits while users of that road suffer.

Many cities have removed the devices because they realize its real cost.

Designerfx (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Whee, lets have more accidents at the expense of falsely implying there’s an actual safety interest! In other words, “this is for your own safety, pay up!”

Red light cameras increasing the frequency of accidents (as has been cited with empirical data frequently) doesn’t mean this is an improvement overall. Less tbones, yes – but a system of improving safety? Not at all. They do increase motorist cost, though!

Real method of improving safety? Make yellow lights longer.

It’s really not any more complicated than that. Of course, then the city can’t give away money to redflex/new red light camera company who is easily just as corrupt.

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

you’re assuming people are only running red lights because of short yellow light times. I’ve got news for you, people are running them because they don’t want to stop and wait 2 minutes, not because the lights are short. So increasing the yellow light times won’t change that behavior.

reducing T-bone accidents IS an actual safety interest. Properly training people to react to the system would be the correct method for people slamming on their brakes.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“trying to prevent t-bone accidents is something we shouldn’t try to do.”

That’s not what the cameras are really for. If preventing T-Bones was the main goal, it can be better (and more cheaply) accomplished by changing light timings — most importantly, making sure that there are a few seconds between one street turning red and the cross street turning green.

The purpose of the cameras is revenue generation.

“you’d probably bitch about having a cop on every corner instead of these cameras”

I would, certainly. But there are more options than just those two.

“Proper oversight solves every issue ever raised against the cameras.”

Not every problem. There’s the problem of the huge cut the camera company takes out of every ticket.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Well, I can’t say much about Chicago–last time I was there, I was 12, and it was only for a few hours–but my uncle lives in DC, and he loves them.

He says that drivers in DC are absolute maniacs who think nothing of running red lights, blocking intersections, and blaring their horns at you if you refuse to endanger people by doing the same. More than once, he’s had someone drive around him to block an intersection that he refused to.

One of his coworkers is an idiot driver who keeps getting caught by the cameras they’ve got in DC. He says the guy’s received “something like 40” tickets by now, and he deserved every one of them. And frankly, with the traffic I have to deal with, I wish we had the same system here in LA, with one modification that DC’s system apparently does not have if the story of my uncle’s coworker is accurate: revoking the licenses of repeat offenders!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And you’re wrong. If safety is your goal, simlly increasing the yellow time is just as effective. The vast majority of tickets are issued to one time offenders, many of which didn’t enter the cross lane of traffic but rather stopped a little too close and ‘violated the intersection’, or performed a ‘rolling stop’ before turning right on red. The dangerous people still run the red like always, and the cameras vastly increase rear end collisions from people braking abruptly.

Raging Alcoholic (profile) says:

In Portland the location of these cameras are known and at those lights people slam on their brakes to not run them. Many a rear end accident has occurred at these locations.
The local paper ran a report about a year ago that said the cameras don’t pay for themselves. (operational costs exceed extortion revenues) but we keep them anyway.

These red light cameras are a real problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The root solution would be to make driver’s ed more comprehensive and make the licensing test more difficult. Require a re-test every ~7 years, invest in better mass transit (Portland already has that), and maaaaybe a special license if you want to operate anything larger than a small SUV

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Not all accidents are created equal.

I got rear-ended a while ago. Some idiot two cars back got spooked and swerved to miss a crazy driver he claimed he saw, that none of the witnesses noticed. He hit the guy behind me and pushed him forward into me. The other two guys’ cars were a bit banged up in the bumper areas. Mine was completely unscathed. No one was injured.

I’ve never been in a T-bone accident (which preventing people from going through red lights is a very good way of preventing,) but I’ve seen one before. Guy in front of me had a green light, which meant he has the right of way in the intersection. A woman in the left-turn lane on the opposite side tried to turn. I don’t know what she was thinking, because her car didn’t even start moving until the guy in front of me was already well into the intersection, but she managed to T-bone him dead-on. It was ugly. Ended up with ambulances and traffic snarls and flashing lights everywhere, and that was from someone who started from a dead stop and was just getting into the intersection.

I can only imagine what it would have been like had the incoming car been going the speed limit. On the other hand, I’d probably prefer not to imagine it at all.

New technology that will trade T-bone collisions for rear-ends? I’m all for it!

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

That could be the case if they actually ticketed only people clearly advancing the red light. When it’s turning red or immediately after turning red is not a good timing to start ticketing. It doesn’t help it you replace 1 T-bone hit per month for 300 rear-ends. The economic damage is the same, the traffic will still be screwed and you may still hurt the drivers. I’ve been the receiving end of a rear-end and my neck hurt for days after the accident. The guy behind me didn’t see the red light and I didn’t notice him coming or I’d have advanced it since it was yellow when I stopped. Or not in order not to get ticketed.

The criticism here is that they set up those crap devices to make money, not to make people safe.

Daniel Joseph Calvanese says:

Strange RLC Video

The one and only ticket I got saw me cross over the line after the light turned red and then slowly make a left turn through an empty intersection.

The only problem is that I remember a massive truck being there on that day blocking me from seeing the light. The truck wasn’t in the video, just a very large gap between the last car that went and me.

streetlight (profile) says:

The one red light camera in out city

Our city of ~450,000 people put one of these on a main thoroughfare just next to downtown; just this one in the whole city. They shortened the yellow in the 25 MPH zone from something like four seconds to two seconds and rear end collisions at that intersection skyrocketed. Also, they had to put two full time cops on the duty of looking at all the pictures this setup took and writing the tickets to be mailed. The increase in ticketing, both for red light camera and accidents, put a big strain on the police and the city court where the tickets were to be adjudicated. Finally, people learned to avoid this camera by driving one block east of this four-lane road to a much more residential two lane drive. The final result: after less than a year the system was removed and no more talk of red light cameras has been heard since.

HenryHighway (profile) says:

Look to California for the future: Tickets are $500.00

Here in California red light camera tickets cost $500.00.

We’ve had cameras here for almost two decades. At one time we had more than 100 cities with red light cameras. Now California is down to less than 50, with recent closures being the large systems operated by Redflex in the Cities of Hayward, Oakland, Santa Ana, Inglewood, and Riverside – 82 cameras in those five cities. In many of those cities the local authorities (chiefs, mayors) made on-the-record statements about the (lack of) efficacy of the cameras. If anyone would like to read those statements, do a search on red light camera candor and then search that Industry PR page for the word candor. But if you’re too busy to go there and read what they said, I will summarize: The cameras made no measurable difference in the number of accidents or injuries.

For those readers who are in California or travel here, here is some semi-secret info about how to deal with our very special flavor of red light cameras. Here’s what to do – first thing – if you get one of our tickets.

1. Check to see if it is a Snitch Ticket, the fake/phishing tickets cops send out to bluff car owners into IDing the actual driver. Snitch Tickets say, at the top, Courtesy Notice-This is not a ticket, and you can ignore them! Skeptical? Search: Snitch Ticket.

2. REAL camera tickets from ANY city (or sheriff) in LA County can be ignored, as the LA courts do not report ignored camera tickets to the DMV. Search: red light camera no consequence.

Anonymous Coward says:

Countdown crosswalk timers

An NPR show (I forget which) brought up an issue where the countdown timers for the “dont walk” signal for pedestrians was contributing to accidents.

Drivers were seeing the countdown timer as a cue for the light turning (which it is), and speeding up (I guess?) to get through the light on short time.

Not Just Another Anonymous Coward says:

Probably Don't Need Them

I was once somewhat like Mason Wheeler, in that I was a proponent of red light cameras, given some of the horrible things I have seen at intersections, and the absolute stupidity of some drivers – in the total absence of red light cameras.

However, it is a proven fact that red light cameras do not help safety. Furthermore, many municipalities couple red light cameras with decreased yellow light times, which is beyond stupid, it points to a purpose other than safety.

Now, could red light cameras be used in an effective manner? Since no one seems to do so, my initial answer is no. It seems like they potentially COULD be used to improve safety, but not one study has shown such an improvement, so either everybody is doing it wrong, or people have a reaction to red light cameras that leads to a decrease in safety.

Oh, and if you are looking for some objective stuff about red light cameras, versus the bogus reports written by the only person to write about the positive benefits of red light cameras, look here:

Austin (profile) says:

Remove It All

I remember seeing a story on 60 Minutes (eh, what can I say, some days there really is nothing on) about a town in France that had around 30,000 people. They ran an experiment of sorts. They removed all the traffic signs, all the red lights, everything, and replaced all the intersections (that they could – some were too small) with roundabouts. They wanted to see how drivers would cope with basically having to make all of their driving decisions themselves, rather than a ton of signage telling them exactly how to drive.

The result was a 70% drop in accidents.

The moral of the story? Even the dumbest humans are still as smart as rats. Stop trying to hint the “right” direction to them, put a little cheese at the end of the maze, and 99% of the time they’ll arrive at their destination just fine.

Stop signs, red lights, and anything else that breaks the flow of traffic always causes problems. That is, when people coast at a steady speed, they don’t hit each other. Anything that mandates applying the brakes CREATES an opportunity for a traffic accident where none previously existed.

Meanwhile, these cameras are a poor attempt at treating a symptom, instead of treating the underlying disease.

But as has been noted elsewhere, this is all about the money, and the money is always in the treatment, never the cure.

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