Red-light camera officials caught on FBI wire talking about giving perks to suburban mayor, unsealed document shows

Duluth News Tribune

A recently unsealed court document reveals for the first time that two top officials at a red-light camera company were caught on undercover FBI recordings talking about giving a suburban mayor campaign contributions and other perks at the same time their firm was pressuring the mayor to increase ticket revenue.

The 2018 FBI search warrant, which sought court approval to search an email account of then-Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta, was part of the broad, yearslong investigation into corruption surrounding red-light cameras operated by SafeSpeed LLC, a probe that has netted charges against more than half a dozen public officials, businessmen and political operatives.

Prosecutors have built much of their case on Omar Maani, one of SafeSpeed’s founders and biggest rainmakers, who turned informant in early 2018 and made undercover recordings and participated in FBI stings where he handed over envelopes of purported cash bribes to Presta and others on the take.

SafeSpeed and its president, Nikki Zollar, have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, characterizing Maani as a lone wolf and saying they were completely unaware of his illegal activities.

But the 35-page search warrant affidavit obtained by the Tribune shows that Zollar and another top SafeSpeed officials were working with Maani in 2017 as the firm was pushing Presta to boost how many tickets his cops were approving so SafeSpeed could rake in more money.

At the same time, Zollar was caught on a federal wiretap telling Maani she’d been “told to write a check” for Presta’s campaign fund and arranging for it to be delivered, according to the affidavit. Maani was not cooperating with investigators at the time and did not know the FBI was listening in.

While the SafeSpeed officials are not identified in the affidavit by name, other details provided in the document show that the person referred to as “SafeSpeed Official A” is Zollar, a clout-heavy public official-turned entrepreneur who built SafeSpeed into one of the area’s biggest ticket generators.

The other company executive, referenced in the document only as “SafeSpeed Official C,” talked with Maani in August 2017 about pulling back on plans to treat Presta and other Crestwood officials to an expensive dinner at a Chicago steakhouse due to recent “negative publicity” surrounding SafeSpeed’s cameras.

“Yeah, no, we can’t do it,” SafeSpeed Official C allegedly told Maani during the recorded call. “Unless we say, oh, we ran into the bar and buy them a round of drinks and then leave.”

Neither Zollar nor SafeSpeed has been charged with any wrongdoing. Through a spokeswoman, the company declined to comment for this story, citing an ongoing lawsuit involving Maani in Cook County Chancery Court.

Presta, who pleaded guilty to taking $5,000 in cash from Maani in an FBI sting, was sentenced last April to a year in prison. He was released on home confinement in September after serving less than half of the sentence due to his deteriorating health.

Maani, meanwhile, was charged with a bribery scheme in 2020 related to his activities on SafeSpeed’s behalf in Oak Lawn, admitting in an agreement with the government that he’d provided other benefits — including campaign contributions, meals, money and sporting-event tickets — to other public officials in exchange for official actions favorable to SafeSpeed and another company in which he had a financial interest.

Under a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office, the case against him will be dropped once his cooperation is complete.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on the search warrant. Attorneys for Maani and Presta did not respond to calls seeking comment.

According to the affidavit, when Maani was first confronted by law enforcement in January 2018, he “admitted having corrupt relationships with several public officials in numerous municipalities” going back to 2006.

One of those corrupt relationships was with Presta, who had been asking Maani for “benefits” ever since he was elected mayor of Crestwood in 2013, including campaign donations, dinners, and support for his annual golf outing, according to the affidavit.

In July 2017, six months before Maani was confronted by agents, SafeSpeed was complaining that Crestwood police weren’t approving enough of the tickets that SafeSpeed’s staff wanted the cops to issue, according to the affidavit.

Federal wiretaps caught Presta jumping into action, boasting to Maani that he’d pressure his cops to approve more violations, then forwarding reports showing his department was now approving more than 90% of the tickets SafeSpeed’s staff had suggested.

Within weeks, the affidavit pointed out, a $2,500 donation was sent to Presta’s campaign by a firm tied to SafeSpeed Official A. That donation matches one made by Triad Consulting, a firm that Zollar runs, according to state election records.

At the same time, Maani was wooing Presta with invites to parties at his swanky cigar lounge in nearby Countryside, the document alleged. One such event in August 2017 featured “an elegant dinner” and three handmade Tatuaje cigars for a ticket price of $125.

On one call recorded by the FBI, Presta confirmed he’d be at the event and said, “I’ll bring somebody,” the affidavit stated.

“Yeah, bring somebody,” Maani was quoted as replying. “We’ll have some fun.”

About a month after the cigar lounge event, wiretaps caught Maani promising the mayor more campaign money. The next day, he called Zollar, who was quoted asking Maani about how the political donation would be delivered.

The alleged discussion occurred at a time red-light firms and suburban officials were being questioned by the Tribune for an upcoming investigative series into the lucrative and controversial camera program.

“I was supposed to tell you that I was told to write a check for Crestwood,” the affidavit quoted Zollar as telling Maani. “Ok, um, do you want me to leave it in the office, or do you want me to bring it on Tuesday?”

The conversation didn’t venture into who directed Zollar to write the check, but Maani replied he’d pick up the money from her and deliver it to Presta a couple of days later, after the Tribune report was expected to be published, according to the affidavit.

“I’ll probably have to go meet with them and talk to them about it and see if they’re getting any (expletive) from anybody,” Maani told Zollar, according to the affidavit.

That $1,000 campaign check was later dropped off, the affidavit noted, albeit before the Tribune published the first of three investigative reports that found widespread flaws in the program, including the influence of campaign cash over public officials.

State election records show that check came directly from SafeSpeed.

On Jan. 30, 2018, a few weeks after Maani began cooperating with the FBI, he recorded a call from Presta in which they discussed how the scrutiny brought on by the Tribune series would make it difficult for SafeSpeed to contribute to Presta’s campaign for Cook County commissioner, according to the affidavit.

“Obviously we have to be overly cautious now,” Maani allegedly told Presta, who agreed, according to the affidavit. “I just want to do it the right way, so obviously they’re (expletive) coming after us.”

Two weeks later, at a lunch meeting at a restaurant in Oak Brook, Maani first floated the idea of giving Presta cash instead of a campaign donation so that it would be harder to trace, according to the affidavit. The two also talked about the numbers of approved violations for the suburb’s three existing cameras, as well as Presta pushing for a fourth SafeSpeed camera at the busy intersection of Route 83 and 127th Street.

“I’ll get you those numbers, and then, like I said, give me like a week or two. I’ll get the cash out,” Maani told Presta, apparently at the direction of the FBI. “I’ll take care of you.”

On March 7, 2018, the FBI provided Maani with $5,000 in cash before he met with Presta at Stacked, a pancake house in Crestwood, according to the affidavit. Maani, who was secretly videotaping the meeting, handed Presta the cash-stuffed envelope and said, “Please, I just need 127th and 83,” the document stated.

Presta allegedly responded, “I’m gonna do my best for you.” After Maani implored him to keep the payment between them, Presta said, “Oh no. I’m glad nobody else is here … I can’t even put it in the bank.”

Throughout the lingering scandal, SafeSpeed, with Zollar continuing as its president, has released statements distancing itself from any misdeeds, including one released on the day Presta was sentenced to prison.

“As new developments in federal investigations come to light, SafeSpeed remains both shocked and saddened that one of its former colleagues was engaged in criminal conduct and recruited outside individuals to help further his self-serving activities,” the April 2022 statement read. “Their actions were clearly in their own self-interest and done without SafeSpeed’s knowledge and undercut the important work SafeSpeed does.”

SafeSpeed made similar arguments last fall in the pending civil lawsuit between it and Maani over how he was kicked out of the firm once the scandal became public. SafeSpeed blamed Maani for costing the company a third of its business, as suburbs and state officials backed away from working with the firm.

While SafeSpeed has characterized its campaign contributions as legal, Maani, in his deferred prosecution agreement with prosecutors, has acknowledged that campaign cash was among the perks improperly showered on public officials to advance his company’s efforts to boost its bottom line.

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, the top elected official implicated in the scheme, also admitted in a plea agreement with prosecutors that he first agreed in 2016 to receive $20,000 in annual campaign contributions from SafeSpeed in exchange for his official support in Springfield, including blocking any attempted legislation that would be harmful to the red-light camera industry.

“I used my office as state senator to help SafeSpeed — er, company A … (and) be its protector in the Illinois Senate and influence other officials to roll out the red-light camera program in Illinois,” Sandoval told U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood at his guilty plea hearing in January 2020.

Sandoval’s plea agreement stated that in August 2017, Sandoval, who headed the powerful senate Transportation Committee, spoke with Maani about splitting up the annual donation into smaller amounts. Maani told Sandoval it wouldn’t be a problem because Zollar “did not want the contribution to ‘shout out,’ meaning raise a red flag,” the plea agreement said.

Campaign finance records analyzed by the Tribune show that the $20,000 was doled out in two separate payments in September 2016. The first $10,000 donation came from Zollar’s Triad Consulting Services, followed three weeks later by a $10,000 donation made by SafeSpeed itself, the records show.

At the time, SafeSpeed declined to answer any questions from the Tribune about the extent of Zollar’s awareness of the political donations being made on the company’s behalf.

In its countersuit against Maani filed in November, however, SafeSpeed acknowledged that Maani’s and Sandoval’s plea agreements included campaign contributions as part of the scope of improprieties, but said any “criminal conduct” was “done without the authorization and knowledge” of SafeSpeed.

The filing did not address the campaign contributions made by SafeSpeed and Zollar’s other firm to Presta.

Sandoval, who was cooperating with federal investigators in hopes of leniency at sentencing, died suddenly of COVID-19 complications in December 2020.

Once Maani began cooperating with the FBI, agents said he told them that SafeSpeed officials were aware of the mayor’s greed from the moment the company was seeking to ink its first camera contract with Crestwood in 2013.

Maani said Zollar had told him about a meeting SafeSpeed Official C had with Presta early in the process where the mayor walked in boasting, “We’re gonna make millions. There will be a slush fund for me,” according to the affidavit.

SafeSpeed officials were so alarmed that they “made sure a letter was written stating that Presta was not receiving anything in connection with a potential SafeSpeed contract,” according to the affidavit.

Presta referenced the episode in a recorded conversation with Maani in February 2018, telling Maani he’d “pissed (SafeSpeed Official C) off that one day.”

“Oh my god, it was just a joke,” Presta said, according to the affidavit. “She goes back and tells (Zollar). I had to write a letter.”

The affidavit also pointed to another letter to an unnamed state senator in March 2017 that was allegedly drafted by SafeSpeed but put on official Crestwood letterhead for Presta to sign. The letter began by thanking the state senator for joining them for dinner, then went on to criticize a bill in Springfield to commission a study on the use of red-light cameras as “a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

“We hope you will … reassess your sponsorship of the bill, which would simply duplicate that which had already been done,” the letter stated.

The affidavit alleged Maani told the FBI that Zollar wrote the letter, though it’s unclear if that was ever verified by investigators.

The Tribune would go on to report how the state had allowed suburbs to set up cameras even at already safe but high-traffic intersections — allowing more fines to be collected for rolling right-on-red tickets.

The newspaper later reported how the state failed to monitor whether crashes went up or down, with cameras allowed at places where crashes rose after their placement, and how the one supposed fail-safe — cops reviewing tickets — wasn’t being followed as some towns raced through approvals in fractions of a second.

The latter report noted that Crestwood had become the biggest ticketer in the suburbs, at the time issuing $6.2 million a year in citations.

Despite the negative publicity, Presta allegedly was still bragging on government wiretaps about how he could get SafeSpeed even more cameras in the village, given it was his cops who were still approving the vast majority of SafeSpeed’s suggested tickets.

“I just saw the mailing - 1,700 fines,” Presta told Maani in the March 20, 2018, conversation, according to the affidavit. “It’s awesome, (expletive) unbelievable.”

Maani, who by that time was cooperating with investigators, told Presta that it wouldn’t matter whether more articles came out, “you guys will just literally surpass everyone and start competing with Chicago,” the affidavit stated.

“We might beat Chicago’s money,” Presta replied. “Oh my god … these (expletive) idiots.”

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

jmahr@chicagotrihune.com