- - Friday, May 16, 2014

Those big, ugly early birds began circling over the corporate headquarters of the revenue-camera industry last week when federal prosecutors announced that felony corruption charges had been filed against the Chicago city official in charge of one of the world’s largest red-light camera operations. More dominoes are expected to fall as FBI agents take the investigation to other cities.

Since New York City became the first to install cameras at intersections two decades ago, the devices have metastasized like cancer, blighting intersections from coast to coast. Municipal managers everywhere assume the familiar grave tone to explain that these devices are for the public good. “If it saves just one life,” they say, trying to keep a straight face, “it’s worth it.”

It sounds so plausible. Traffic tickets are deeply unpopular, so when a city writes 600,000 of them, as Chicago did last year, the cameras must yield great safety benefits. Transportation officials produce charts in bright colors, with graphs and accompanying texts to show that streets are safer than ever. It’s mostly fibs, stretchers and other misrepresentations of the facts.

Rajiv Shah, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, examined the raw data a few years ago and discovered that municipal officials had rigged the definition of “collision” to exclude rear-enders. It quickly became obvious when the spying cameras were installed and a lot of motorists began getting unwelcome surprises in the mail that skittish drivers were quick to hit the brakes when a traffic light flashed yellow. That’s the sort of unexpected and erratic behavior that causes accidents. When Mr. Shah included “rear-enders” in the calculations, the cameras were shown to yield no statistically significant benefit.

Why then the rush to install the cameras? The criminal complaint newly filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois has an answer. For a decade, John Bills was Chicago’s deputy transportation chief with oversight over the revenue cameras. According to prosecutors, Mr. Bills quickly realized he could share the ticket wealth with himself.

The indictment paints a vivid portrait of a bureaucrat living it up with parties, trips, luxury hotel suites, a condominium, a Mercedes convertible and even cash for his girlfriend. Redflex Traffic Systems, the Australian company that owns the revenue cameras, used a third party to spread $2 million in bribes to Mr. Bills and his associates.

Prosecutors say they had an insider as a source for the allegation. Aaron Rosenberg, the former executive vice president of Redflex, said in papers filed with the court that he bribed officials in 14 states to get his company’s robotic cameras on as many street corners as possible. He wasn’t “doing it to save the children,” and neither was Chicago.

Mr. Rosenberg signed a pretrial diversion agreement, allowing him to turn state’s evidence without fear of prosecution. Such a deal is likely to send quivers and shivers down the spines of every town councilman in Mr. Rosenberg’s Rolodex. The song-and-dance routine about “safety” doesn’t explain why so many politicians collected campaign donations, meals, trips and other incentives from the revenue-camera makers.

Mr. Bills insists he did nothing wrong. His lawyer says “nobody at Redflex has told the truth.” The web of lies spun over the course of two decades is likely to come apart in a Chicago courtroom as more of the growing list of defendants seek leniency in exchange for telling what they know, which is probably plenty. The public deserves to know, too.

The reaction has been swift. Redflex reports that it will lose up to $9 million over the next six months. Cities may decide that the revenue is not worth the risk of getting involved in a tainted revenue scheme. There’s nothing like the fear of spending 10 years in prison to get someone to do the right thing.

Now it’s up to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to do right by the residents of Chicago. He should pull the plug on this sordid business and not let this crisis at City Hall go to waste. Chicago could set a rare example for cities from coast to coast.

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