Illinois state Sen. Emil Jones III has been hit with federal bribery charges alleging he took money from a red-light camera company executive to kill legislation requiring traffic studies for automated camera systems, then lied to federal agents about it.
Jones, 44, was charged in a criminal information made public Tuesday with bribery and lying to the FBI.
Jones, the son of former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr., is the latest politician to be charged in the sweeping federal investigation centered on red-light cameras installed by SafeSpeed LLC, a once clout-heavy camera company that secured contracts to run red-light cameras in nearly two dozen Chicago suburbs that generated millions of dollars in fines from motorists annually.
Targeting illicit efforts to grease the way for the cameras, the probe broke wide open in 2019 when agents raided the offices of then-state Sen. Martin Sandoval, who at the time was the head of the state Senate’s powerful Transportation Committee.
In a statement Tuesday, the former Senate president defended his son.
“The charges brought against my son, Emil Jones III, do not reflect the man he is,” Jones Jr. said. “Everyone knows he is an honest, hardworking legislator. I intend to fight with him and stand alongside him throughout this process.”
An arraignment for Jones III was set for Friday. Defendants charged via criminal information, rather than via grand jury indictment, typically intend to plead guilty.
Jones III, a Far South Side Democrat, has served in the state Senate since 2009 and has been a member of the same Transportation Committee as the late Sandoval. He did not immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday, and his attorney, Zeke Katz, did not respond to an email. Jones is up for reelection in November but is not facing any challengers for the Senate seat.
Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park said in a statement that he has asked for and expects “to receive Senator Jones’ resignation from his leadership post and committee chairmanship.”
“These are grave allegations,” Harmon said. “Members of the Senate and all public officials need to hold themselves to a high ethical standard for the public to have trust and faith in our work.”
Jones’ salary as a senator is $72,906 annually. If he resigns his committee chairmanship, he’ll be giving up an additional stipend of $11,098 per year.
The timing of the charges is intriguing, as the U.S. Justice Department has a general policy of not bringing charges against candidates within 60 days of an election. Jones is running unopposed on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
The charges also were filed nearly three years to the day since the raids on Sandoval’s offices and home. At the time, Democratic leaders did not immediately move to unseat Sandoval from the transportation committee, drawing a comment from Jones III.
“You’re innocent until proven guilty,” Jones said then. “But I think, considering what the investigation is about, (Sandoval) should temporarily step down.”
In February 2019, Jones introduced a bill in the Senate that would have required the Illinois Department of Transportation to conduct a statewide study of automated traffic law enforcement systems, including red-light cameras such as those operated by SafeSpeed, according to the six-page information.
The charges alleged Jones agreed with SafeSpeed executive and co-founder Omar Maani — who was secretly cooperating with federal investigators — to “protect” SafeSpeed by limiting any traffic studies to the city of Chicago, excluding the suburbs where the company does much of its business.
In exchange, Jones took $5,000 in benefits and wanted a job and additional payments for an unnamed associate, Individual B, according to the charges. In August 2019, Jones told Maani that if he contributed $5,000 by sponsoring an event, they “would not have to report that contribution” on state campaign funding reports, the charges alleged. Under state campaign finance law, the sponsorship of campaign events must be reported to election officials, said Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich.
On Sept. 24, 2019, the day of the FBI raid on Sandoval’s offices, Jones was interviewed by agents. According to the charges, he lied by saying he had not agreed to protect SafeSpeed in exchange for Maani hiring or paying Individual B and had not discussed any plan with Maani to skirt campaign financing disclosures.
Records from the Illinois General Assembly show that Jones’ proposal was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on Nov. 19, 2019, which at the time was no longer being headed by Sandoval because he had stepped down as head of the panel in October of that year amid the federal investigation.
Sandoval would eventually be indicted and plead guilty to bribery-related corruption counts, but he died of COVID-19 complications in December 2020 while cooperating with the government.
In Springfield, the Transportation Committee unanimously approved Jones’ legislation in less than three minutes — before Jones could even finish his explanation about what the bill did. In the full Senate, however, lawmakers did not vote it up or down at passage stage.
The red-light camera investigation has so far ensnared more than a dozen politicians, political operatives and businessmen, many of whom were either moonlighting for SafeSpeed as consultants or had direct influence on just how much money the company could rake in.
Among them was former Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to participating in a kickback scheme with a mob-connected businessman and his stepsons that allegedly funneled thousands in cash payments to the mayor in exchange for a cut of the suburb’s ticket proceeds.
Just like with Jones, the federal government accused Ragucci of nefarious dealings with Maani in exchange for renewing the company’s annual contract with Oakbrook Terrace.
Also charged was Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta, who was sentenced in April to a year in federal prison after he was caught on undercover FBI video taking what he thought was a $5,000 bribe from Maani.
The investigation has also led to the convictions of former state representative and longtime Worth Township Supervisor John O’Sullivan and his associate, Patrick Doherty, a Democratic political operative. Both O’Sullivan and Doherty have admitted their roles in a plot to pay bribes to a relative of an Oak Lawn trustee in 2017 to get lucrative red-light cameras installed there.
A spokesperson for SafeSpeed had no immediate comment on Jones’ case. But the company and its president, Nikki Zollar, have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying Maani was operating without the company’s knowledge or approval. Maani is no longer affiliated with the company.
“SafeSpeed’s goal has always been to provide a service that helps save lives,” the company said in a statement earlier this year. “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. Their actions were clearly in their own self-interest and done without SafeSpeed’s knowledge and undercut the important work SafeSpeed does.”
Jones is the ninth recent member of the Illinois General Assembly to be charged with federal crimes in the past several years. That list includes five of Jones’ former colleagues in the Senate — Sandoval, Thomas Cullerton, Terry Link, Annazette Collins and Sam McCann — as well as Madigan and ex-state Reps. Luis Arroyo, Eddie Acevedo.
Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox each afternoon.
With the November election seven weeks away, Republican leaders in the state Senate and House railed at the latest Democrat to be indicted.
“Even in a post-Madigan era, Illinois continues to have a systemic corruption problem — one that Democrats continue to enable,” said Senate Republican leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods said of Democrats for refusing to consider a series of ethics and anti-corruption reforms that GOP lawmakers want passed.
Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.