Feds indict Crestwood mayor in red-light bribery scheme
Crestwood leader faces bribery charges in alleged red-light camera scheme
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.”
A suburban intersection with red-light camera enforcement.
Trucks unload scrap metal at General Iron in Lincoln Park in March.