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‘We don’t pay people off,’ CEO of red-light camera company insists amid federal investigation

Chicago Sun Times

Tuesday, October 8, 2019  |  Article  |  Robert Herguth, Mark Brown, and Jon Seidel

Red Light Cameras

SafeSpeed CEO Nikki Zollar defended how her red-light camera company does business in an interview with the Sun-Times | Still from company website video

 

The politically connected CEO of a red-light camera company under federal scrutiny insisted “we don’t pay people off,” amid new revelations that agents recently approached another village mayor and a company salesman as part of their investigation.

 

“There is no subpoena to SafeSpeed,” Nikki Zollar told the Chicago Sun-Times late last week in her first public remarks since federal agents fanned out across the southwest suburbs on Sept. 26, seizing records and interviewing people.

 

“Nobody has contacted us, except you,” Zollar told a Sun-Times reporter on Friday.

 

Zollar said she believes that a SafeSpeed “partner,” businessman and developer Omar Maani, appears to be cooperating with the government, as do other sources familiar with the probe.

 

“One hundred percent,” said Zollar, a onetime aide to former Gov. Jim Edgar who’s also served on the Chicago State University board and the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

 

Her company is “trying to find out what we need to do to distance ourselves from him.”

 

“Our partner has run amok in some way,” Zollar said.

 

But Zollar said she can say with certainty that her company operates above board, with integrity.

 

“We don’t pay people off,” she said.

 

She added that she and co-CEO Chris Lai have been running SafeSpeed, not Maani: “We did not know what his other businesses are . . . we can only do business the way we do business.”

 

In a video on the SafeSpeed website, Zollar credits Maani with bringing the red-light camera business to her attention several years ago as the company was looking to pivot to a new area.

 

 

Maani said “there’s a great idea,” Zollar recalls in the video. “There’s this thing called red-light cameras. And it’s been around the world for the last 25, 35 years. And it’s just coming to the United States.”

 

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on Maani.

 

Maani hasn’t returned numerous phone calls or responded to a note left at his sprawling Burr Ridge home, which appeared to be devoid of people during recent visits, with exterior lights left on during the day and a package sitting on the front stoop.

 

His father, Khaled Maani, also a SafeSpeed investor, said he doesn’t know whether his son is a federal informant.

 

Nobody has accused SafeSpeed of wrongdoing, and nobody has been publicly charged with a crime following the Sept. 26 raids.

 

They came days after the feds descended on the Chicago home and Cicero and Springfield offices of state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat who over the years has advocated for SafeSpeed in the halls of state government. And they included visits by the FBI and IRS to public officials in Summit, Lyons, Crestwood and McCook, where Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski is the mayor.

 

Among those questioned: Tobolski’s county chief of staff, Pat Doherty, who said agents asked him about Maani’s other company, Presidio Capital, that received taxpayer money through county government to build low-income homes in Cicero and Summit.

 

Doherty said he wasn’t asked about his side job with SafeSpeed, where he’s a “consultant” trying to get the red-light company hired by towns to install and operate cameras and share in the lucrative ticket payments — which he also gets a cut of if he’s successful.

SafeSpeed’s web site boasts that the company is a “proud partner of over 30 Illinois municipalities.”

 

The Sun-Times has learned another SafeSpeed consultant with a local government post, Worth Township Supervisor John O’Sullivan, received a subpoena from federal authorities as part of their corruption investigation.

 

O’Sullivan, who once worked for the county under Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, declined to comment.

 

His attorney said, “I don’t know that he’s a target . . . I just know that he did receive a subpoena . . . he got one individually.”

 

Zollar said she hired O’Sullivan as a SafeSpeed “salesman” only after insisting on meeting with his attorney to ensure there’d be no conflict of interest with his government duties.

 

The Sun-Times also has learned federal agents contacted Alsip Mayor John Ryan on Sept. 26 to ask about SafeSpeed, which village officials have decided to hire for red-light camera services, though a contract hasn’t been finalized yet.

 

“I’m not being investigated, nor is the village,” Ryan said, describing the inquiry by federal agents as brief and “informational,” with the decision to bring on SafeSpeed made by a village “board majority” following a competitive bid.

 

Doherty helped Ryan’s last mayoral campaign, Ryan said, but so far as he knows, Doherty is not involved in SafeSpeed’s Alsip deal.

 

Doherty didn’t return a call on the matter on Monday.

 

In 2016, a different company run by Zollar donated $1,000 to a campaign fund run by Ryan, and he recently returned it to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

 

A 2017 Chicago Tribune story noted that Sandoval went to bat for SafeSpeed in Oakbrook Terrace, pressuring the Illinois Department of Transportation to allow cameras at a busy intersection in town.

 

Zollar said that the person who connected her firm to Sandoval was Victor Reyes, a long-time political operative and lobbyist hired by SafeSpeed.

 

“Victor introduced us to Sen. Sandoval and everyone else,” and brought SafeSpeed officials to the state capitol to meet legislators, Zollar said.

 

Zollar said IDOT — the state agency that must give permission for red-light cameras on major intersections — has been putting the brick on numerous requests. Initially, there was no good process for appealing IDOT’s rejections, “and the only thing that came of” the company’s legislative push was the creation of an “appeals process,” she said.

 

“Obviously we hired him because he is a political creature,” Zollar said of Reyes. “I felt he’s done a good job.”

 

Reyes declined to comment.

 

Red-light cameras are unpopular with the public but can bring in millions of dollars for local governments and red-light contractors, who argue that when motorists know cameras are around, they drive more carefully.

 

Zollar said, “My life is about serving the people . . . people don’t like red light cameras, I don’t know why, they save lives.”