Legislation would disconnect suburban red-light cameras if they involve corruption
In less than five years of operation, red-light cameras installed by Oakbrook Terrace at the intersection of Route 83 and 22nd Street have generated nearly $10 million for the city.
But an Elmhurst legislator is looking to unplug Oakbrook Terrace's lucrative cameras -- and several others tied to bribery and kickback scandals elsewhere in the state -- because they were installed under "dubious circumstances," she said.
Republican state Rep. Deanne Mazzochi said she will reintroduce her bill that would prevent towns and counties from operating red-light camera locations where the installation of the devices is linked to "public corruption charges."
Mazzochi said she had Oakbrook Terrace's red-light cameras in mind last year when she drafted the legislation that had 17 fellow Republican co-sponsors attached, but it was blocked by the Democratic majority in the House and socked away in the chamber's Rules Committee.
"How many indictments is it going to take before the legislature finally takes action?" Mazzochi said. "The camera in Oakbrook Terrace is in my district and has been specifically singled out in federal indictments and guilty pleas."
In fact, former Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci is scheduled for arraignment in federal court Thursday on charges that he received bribes and falsified tax returns in connection with the installation of those cameras in 2017.
Prosecutors allege Ragucci pocketed $3,500 a month from an individual with a "financial interest" in the company that installed the cameras, SafeSpeed LLC. The payments started in early 2017 and continued until 2019, when federal agents raided his home and uncovered $60,000 in cash. Court records indicate authorities believe some of Ragucci's payments were also made by individuals working for a company contracted by SafeSpeed.
SafeSpeed officials said the company was "unaware" of the actions by these individuals who were unnamed in the court documents.
The homes of several other municipal leaders in the South suburbs who had dealings with SafeSpeed were also raided at that time. Many of those elected officials were also indicted or have already pleaded guilty in connection with the scandal.
The Oakbrook Terrace cameras are on the border it shares with Oak Brook and are adjacent to Oak Brook Center. Oak Brook officials sued to have the cameras removed but later dropped the lawsuit.
Oak Brook Village President Gopal Lalmalani said his village is likely refiling the lawsuit.
"This has never been about safety; it's about a money grab," he said of the cameras. "The issue is these cameras are mired in corruption and should have never gone up."
Oakbrook Terrace's initial requests to install the cameras were denied by the Illinois Department of Transportation. But prosecutors say former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, who pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges in connection with the red-light camera scandal, pushed the Oakbrook Terrace permits through. Sandoval was cooperating with the prosecutors before he died of COVID-19 in 2020.
Oak Brook officials say crash data from the intersection between 2010 and 2019 shows crashes have gone up since the cameras were installed, largely caused by drivers' getting rear-ended after braking abruptly to avoid activating the cameras.
In 2015, only 23 crashes were reported in the intersection. By 2019, 49 crashes occurred there, according to Oak Brook's analysis of IDOT data.
Anti-camera activists were at the intersection Wednesday to bring awareness to drivers that the cameras were still active despite the criminal charges against Ragucci.
"We want these banned," said activist Raul Montes Jr. "It's not a safety tool; it's being used to rip people off."
In the first full year the cameras were operating, Oakbrook Terrace received more than $5.4 million in fines, according to the city's financial records. After paying SafeSpeed for equipment rental and covering other operational expenditures, the cameras netted the city roughly $3.2 million. That accounted for nearly a quarter of all the city's $13 million general fund revenue that year.
The city anticipated receiving less than half of what it generated from the cameras.
However, Oakbrook Terrace officials have apparently since realized they shouldn't rely so heavily on the cameras, noting in the most recent budget that "although traffic enforcement fines continue to be the largest revenue source for the city, it appears these fines plateaued due to more people working from home and more drivers aware of the cameras."
From May 2020 to April 2021, the cameras netted Oakbrook Terrace just $1.65 million, the city's audit shows.