Shortly after pleading not guilty to federal bribery charges Friday, Illinois state Sen. Emil Jones III was told his case will next be in court on Nov. 4.
It was an arbitrary status date as far as the federal criminal justice system goes — but not so much for Jones.
Four days after that hearing, the Far South Side Democrat will be on the ballot in the Nov. 8 general election, where he’s running unopposed for a new term.
That only-in-Illinois reality raised more questions about the political future for Jones, who was charged earlier in the week with accepting bribes from a red-light camera company executive in exchange for killing legislation that went against the company’s interests.
The arraignment Friday came amid increasing pressure for Jones to step down from the seat he’s held since 2009, having followed his powerful father, then-Senate President Emil Jones Jr., into the seat the elder Jones held for decades.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday called for Jones to resign, one day after Jones stepped down from his unpaid post as deputy leader for the Senate Democrats and his $11,098-per-year committee chair position at the request of Senate President Don Harmon.
Even if Jones were to resign, however, his name will likely remain on the ballot due to early voting and mail-in ballots, election officials have said.
Jones, 44, was charged in a criminal information made public Tuesday with bribery and lying to federal agents. The most serious charge carries up to 10 years in prison, while the others have a five-year maximum term, according to federal prosecutors.
Defendants charged by information, as opposed to grand jury indictment, typically intend to plead guilty down the road. Jones has not spoken publicly about the case and his attorneys have not responded to requests for comment.
Jones entered a formal plea to the charges during a telephonic hearing before U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood. “I plead not guilty, your honor,” he said in a calm voice.
Before entering his plea, Jones answered succinctly as the judge determined he understood the proceedings. He confirmed his age, said he has no underlying health issues, saying, “I’m feeling fine your honor.”
Asked about his educational background, Jones said, “I didn’t graduate but I attended some college.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Durkin said the government will be turning over evidence in the case over the next several weeks that is “somewhat voluminous.”
The judge allowed Jones to remain free on a recognizance bond while his case is pending.
Jones’ father was one of the state’s most powerful machine Democrats who often batted away allegations of nepotism and famously gave a boost to the budding political career of Barack Obama, who rose from the Illinois Senate to eventually become president. In a statement Tuesday, the former Senate president defended his son, saying the charges “do not reflect the man he is.”
“Everyone knows he is an honest, hardworking legislator,” Jones Jr. said. “I intend to fight with him and stand alongside him throughout this process.”
Jones III was 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 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.
Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox each afternoon.
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.
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.
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.
SafeSpeed 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.