Feds in­dict Crest­wood mayor in red-light bribery scheme

Crest­wood leader faces bribery charges in al­leged red-light cam­era scheme

Chicago Sun-Times - - CHICAGO SUN TIMES - BY JON SEIDEL AND ROBERT HERGUTH,

The mayor of south­west sub­ur­ban Crest­wood faces fed­eral bribery charges in a new in­dict­ment made pub­lic Fri­day that cen­ters on the po­lit­i­cally con­nected red-light cam­era com­pany SafeSpeed, court records show.

Louis Presta, 69, has also been charged with fil­ing false tax re­turns and ly­ing to the FBI and IRS, al­legedly about whether an en­ve­lope Presta took dur­ing a March 2018 meet­ing with a SafeSpeed rep­re­sen­ta­tive had been stuffed with $5,000 cash.

Presta’s in­dict­ment is the lat­est pub­lic sign of the feds’ on­go­ing pub­lic cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions, which last month led to a bribery charge against the util­ity com­pany ComEd. How­ever, Presta’s in­dict­ment ap­pears to be part of a sep­a­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tion that ear­lier this year led to a guilty plea by for­mer state Sen. Martin San­doval.

In the Presta case, pros­e­cu­tors say he sought and re­ceived ben­e­fits from SafeSpeed rep­re­sen­ta­tives while SafeSpeed sought to ex­pand its ser­vices in Crest­wood. They also say Presta was in­ter­viewed by fed­eral au­thor­i­ties Sept. 26 amid a se­ries of raids by fed­eral agents that in­cluded San­doval’s of­fice at the state capi­tol in Springfiel­d.

Dur­ing Presta’s in­ter­view, the feds say he de­nied re­ceiv­ing any gifts, cash or cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from SafeSpeed. Then, when shown a record­ing of a March 7, 2018, meet­ing at which the feds say he ac­cepted the en­ve­lope with $5,000 in cash, Presta al­legedly lied and said there was no money in the en­ve­lope.

Presta, who ran un­suc­cess­fully for Cook County Board in 2018, is also charged with fil­ing false in­come tax re­turns for the years 2015 and 2018, as well as fail­ing to file an in­come tax re­turn for 2014.

Reached in Fe­bru­ary by the Chicago Sun-Times, Presta said he wasn’t co­op­er­at­ing with au­thor­i­ties and hadn’t “heard from them in months . . . no com­mu­ni­ca­tion at all go­ing on.”

Presta said at the time that he wasn’t afraid of get­ting charged and hadn’t done any­thing wrong. “No, I’m do­ing busi­ness ev­ery day,” he said.

Presta was elected mayor in 2013. De­fense at­tor­ney Thomas Breen re­leased a state­ment Fri­day af­ter­noon that said Presta de­nies the charges.

“As the fu­ture trial of this case will show, Mr. Presta never vi­o­lated the trust the peo­ple of Crest­wood placed in him,” the state­ment read. “We an­tic­i­pate that the ev­i­dence will show that Mr. Presta never did what his cam­paign con­trib­u­tor asked him to do. Mr. Presta re­mained com­mit­ted to the peo­ple who had elected him mayor of Crest­wood.” A source told a re­porter ear­lier this year that IRS agents have been ask­ing ques­tions about Presta’s cam­paign fund and his Michi­gan va­ca­tion con­do­minium, which sits on a lake.

Crest­wood has been one of the most lu­cra­tive com­mu­ni­ties for SafeSpeed, and the vil­lage’s red-light pro­gram has also been the sub­ject of a class-ac­tion law­suit.

San­doval pleaded guilty to cor­rup­tion charges re­lated to SafeSpeed in Jan­uary and agreed to co­op­er­ate with fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors. His plea agree­ment said he “en­gaged in cor­rupt ac­tiv­i­ties with other pub­lic of­fi­cials” and took more than $250,000 “in bribes as part of crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity that in­volved more than five par­tic­i­pants.”

San­doval’s name has also sur­faced in the sep­a­rate fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion of ComEd. Illi­nois House Speaker Michael Madi­gan has been im­pli­cated in the ComEd in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but he has not been charged with a crime and de­nies wrong­do­ing.

Also fac­ing charges re­lated to SafeSpeed is Pa­trick Do­herty, once chief of staff to for­mer Cook County Com­mis­sioner Jeff Tobol­ski. Do­herty worked as a paid con­sul­tant for SafeSpeed.

Zachary Far­don, the for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney for the Chicago area, is rep­re­sent­ing SafeSpeed in a civil case but de­clined to say whether he’s also rep­re­sent­ing them in any crim­i­nal case. The com­pany wouldn’t an­swer ques­tions about whether SafeSpeed has been con­tacted by fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors or is now co­op­er­at­ing.

Pre­vi­ously, SafeSpeed has de­nied do­ing any­thing wrong and por­trayed any mis­deeds as the work of a rogue part­ner, Omar Maani, who is now be­lieved to be co­op­er­at­ing with the feds.

In a state­ment Fri­day, the com­pany said, “SafeSpeed does not con­done the con­duct al­leged in the in­dict­ment against Crest­wood Mayor Louis Presta. There is no place for that con­duct by pub­lic of­fi­cials, or peo­ple who op­er­ate in the red-light cam­era in­dus­try.”

“SafeSpeed cer­tainly does not tol­er­ate this be­hav­ior,” it said. “The com­pany holds its em­ploy­ees and rep­re­sen­ta­tives to high stan­dards of con­duct and ethics.”

Maani’s name ap­peared Fri­day amid a flurry of fil­ings by Presta’s cam­paign com­mit­tee with the Illi­nois State Board of Elec­tions. In one, Presta ac­knowl­edged a $5,000 in-kind con­tri­bu­tion from Maani in March 2018 for “Elec­tion day work­ers and ex­penses.”

Gen­eral Iron’s owner is chal­leng­ing pol­lu­tion con­trol re­quire­ments from a re­cently is­sued state per­mit that is al­low­ing the metal shred­der to build a new op­er­a­tion on the South­east Side.

The move fol­lows protests by res­i­dents who don’t want the com­pany to re­lo­cate to their neigh­bor­hood from the fa­cil­ity’s long­time home in Lin­coln Park. The com­pany is chal­leng­ing the state’s law­ful abil­ity to re­quire cer­tain ro­bust air pol­lu­tion test­ing and mon­i­tor­ing and other re­quire­ments.

The com­pany ar­gued sev­eral con­di­tions placed on it are “con­trary to law, in­fea­si­ble and ar­bi­trary and capri­cious.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tors is­sued a con­struc­tion per­mit with pol­lu­tion con­trols in June that com­mu­nity groups said was too weak to ad­e­quately pro­tect res­i­dents in an area of the city that al­ready suf­fers from poor air qual­ity.

“It’s deeply dis­turb­ing,” said Nancy Loeb, di­rec­tor of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Ad­vo­cacy Cen­ter at North­west­ern Pritzker School of Law who is rep­re­sent­ing South­east Side com­mu­nity groups. “RMG has been pro­nounc­ing that it in­tends to be a great neigh­bor and in­stead it’s look­ing to weaken the al­ready not-strin­gent per­mit plan.”

On July 30, Gen­eral Iron filed an ap­peal with a state panel, the Illi­nois Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board, that rules on dis­putes over en­vi­ron­men­tal law. Specif­i­cally, Re­serve Man­age­ment Group, Gen­eral Iron’s par­ent com­pany, wants to strike the state’s over­sight of a dust con­tain­ment plan that is now part of the state per­mit. It also wants to strike re­quire­ments for air test­ing, ar­gu­ing that it is be­ing sub­ject to stan­dards for “ma­jor” sources of pol­lu­tion as de­fined by fed­eral law.

The Illi­nois En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency “is over­step­ping its author­ity,” the com­pany said in its pe­ti­tion.

It calls word­ing on one safety re­quire­ment am­bigu­ous and wants clar­i­fi­ca­tion. The con­trol at is­sue was added to car-shred­ding equip­ment fol­low­ing two ex­plo­sions in Lin­coln Park in May. That fea­ture is al­low­ing the com­pany to re­sume op­er­a­tions at its Lin­coln Park lo­ca­tion, where it will con­tinue to shred cars and scrap metal un­til it moves to the South­east Side.

Ald. Su­san Sad­lowski Garza, whose 10th Ward will house the new Gen­eral Iron op­er­a­tion, “is con­cerned that this means [the com­pany] does not believe they can op­er­ate safely and are try­ing to avoid any over­sight of par­tic­u­late emis­sions,” said Garza pol­icy ad­viser John Heroff. “We are still di­gest­ing what this ap­peal means and wait­ing to see how we can re­spond as a city.”

Jor­dan Troy, a spokes­woman for Mayor Lori Light­foot, said the city is wait­ing for Re­serve Man­age­ment Group to file for sep­a­rate city per­mits that will al­low the com­pany to op­er­ate at its new lo­ca­tion and de­clined to com­ment on the state per­mit.

In a state­ment, Re­serve Man­age­ment Group said it “is sim­ply ex­er­cis­ing its rights to en­sure that the per­mit lan­guage is clear and un­am­bigu­ous, as well as to be treated equally with any other mi­nor source of emis­sions.”

Illi­nois EPA spokes­woman Kim Biggs said At­tor­ney Gen­eral Kwame Raoul’s of­fice was asked to rep­re­sent the agency in the mat­ter and de­ferred com­ment. A Raoul spokes­woman de­clined to com­ment.

The Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board is sched­uled to meet Thurs­day, when it could vote on whether to ac­cept the pe­ti­tion. If the board ac­cepts the ap­peal, the mat­ter will be as­signed to a hear­ing of­fi­cer and could take about four months to de­cide.

The city’s ap­proval of Gen­eral Iron’s re­open­ing in Lin­coln Park came Fri­day, and op­er­a­tions could re­sume as soon as Satur­day. In a let­ter to Re­serve Man­age­ment Group, the city’s Cor­po­ra­tion Coun­sel Mark Fless­ner said the com­pany met its le­gal obligation­s to show safe­guards were in place to pre­vent an­other ac­ci­dent — but, he wrote, “I wish to make very clear that the city will be closely mon­i­tor­ing the fa­cil­ity.”

Louis Presta

SUN-TIMES FILES

A sub­ur­ban in­ter­sec­tion with red-light cam­era en­force­ment.

Louis Presta

AN­NIE COSTABILE/SUN-TIMES FILE

Trucks un­load scrap metal at Gen­eral Iron in Lin­coln Park in March.

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