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Chicago insider who took $2 million in bribes in red light camera scandal gets 10 years in prison

John Bills, the central figure in a massive corruption scheme at Chicago’s City Hall, was sentenced to 10 years in prison Monday for taking 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.

The sentence came moments after Bills choked up in a packed federal courtroom and apologized for his actions and the shame he brought to his family.

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Bills, 55, who rose through City Hall as part of the political patronage army of longtime state House Speaker Michael Madigan, faced up to 30 years in prison for personally profiting in exchange for helping grow the city's $600-million red light camera program into the largest in the nation.

The scheme was first exposed by the Chicago Tribune in 2012.

Standing with his hands braced on a lectern, Bills had to stop himself several times when he became emotional as he addressed U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall. He said he is still trying to come to terms with how he threw away a good job that provided for his family and promised a steady pension.

Tribune reporter David Kidwell on the upcoming sentencing inChicago's red-light cameras scandal.

"I lost all of that," Bills said as his wife and children watched from the front row of the courtroom gallery. "It's all gone. It's all gone because I fell at the finish line."

Bills acknowledged in his statement that his "broken moral compass" had caused him to commit "immoral" acts, but he denied being a power broker or "mastermind" of any criminal scheme.

"Your honor, that is not the truth," Bills said. "I was a mid-level manager who was directed by my superiors and given a responsibility that I obviously wasn't prepared for."

In handing down the sentence, Kendall called Bills' 10-year corruption scheme "a huge setback for the rule of law in the city of Chicago."

Prosecutors had argued that Bills deserved at least 10 years in prison, but his lawyer emphasized that Bills' wrongdoing didn't rank with that of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"Mr. Bills is not ex-Gov. Blagojevich," Nishay Sanan said in reference to Blagojevich's 14-year prison term. "He's not selling Senate seats."

John Bills arrives in court in Chicago
John Bills arrives in court in Chicago (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)

U.S. Atty. Zachary Fardon, who led the prosecution of Bills, urged Kendall to send a message with her sentence.

"Chicago officials need to know that if they choose a path of corruption, the end of that path is a prison cell," Fardon said.

The probation office recommended to the judge that Bills be given a 10-year prison term.

A federal jury convicted Bills in January on all 20 counts, including bribery, conspiracy, extortion and fraud after deliberating for only five hours.

Sanan had portrayed Bills as a fall guy but provided scant evidence as he tried to spread blame for the conspiracy on a phalanx of well-connected lobbyists and Bills' elected bosses, including such political luminaries as Madigan and former Mayor Richard Daley.

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But even as Sanan argued before jurors that Madigan and Daley were really to blame, Bills was still quietly standing firm in his refusal to cooperate with federal prosecutors looking to expand their investigation.

Fardon's office has repeatedly asked Bills to identify other potential conspirators in exchange for leniency, said Sanan, who said the most recent request came soon after Bills' conviction in January.

"It has always been his contention that he has no evidence to offer them," Sanan said.

In its sentencing memorandum, the prosecution team suggested Bills deserved to go to prison for 20 to 30 years based on the massive amount of the bribes, his lack of remorse, violation of public trust and leadership role in the decade-long conspiracy.

Sanan sought a sentence of three to four years in prison for Bills. In court papers, he argued that Bills was never a leader of the conspiracy and that the size of the scheme should be limited only to the value of those payments and gifts Bills acknowledges accepting, about $42,900, not the more than $2 million in bribes.

During the two-week trial, jurors heard evidence about how Bills rose through the ranks at City Hall as a top Madigan precinct captain and political operative, eventually becoming the No. 2 manager in the Chicago Department of Transportation during then-Mayor Daley's administration.

According to testimony, Bills began scheming almost immediately after he was handed the responsibility of overseeing the red light camera pilot project, hatching a plot to steer traffic camera contracts to Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., an Arizona-based firm.

Bills manipulated the process to ensure Redflex won the contract, orchestrated votes and met with Daley and Madigan in his efforts to promote the company's agenda. He coached the company's executives before their meetings with other city officials and advised them about which lobbyists to hire, which politicians to court and to whom to make political contributions.

In return, Redflex showered Bills with more than $560,000 in cash bribes, including up to $2,000 for each of the 384 red light cameras installed under his watch. The company also lavished hundreds of thousands of dollars more in gifts — including a car, a condominium, lavish hotel stays and vacations.

All the while, Bills was working to expand the program to include speed and school bus cameras, all in an effort to sweeten his own deal, according to testimony at the trial.

When Bills retired from the city in 2011, he went to work in Chicago for a Redflex consultant, Greg Goldner, a former campaign manager to Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. According to testimony, Redflex was paying Goldner to keep Bills on the payroll.

The conspiracy began to crumble in 2012 when the Chicago Tribune began publishing reports about Bills' cozy relationship with Redflex. The scandal that followed has prompted four criminal convictions, half a dozen lawsuits, and continuing criminal investigations of Redflex practices throughout the U.S. and in Australia, the headquarters of its parent company, Redflex Holdings.

The company, once an industry leader in automated camera enforcement, has all but abandoned its red light camera business in the U.S. and dismissed much of its workforce.

David Kidwell writes for the Chicago Tribune

UPDATES:

12:11 p.m.: This story has been updated with details of John Bills sentencing.

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