PART 2 OF A 2-PART SERIES
Red-light cameras operated by Chicago-based SafeSpeed LLC have issued more than $26 million in tickets along a local four-mile stretch of Harlem Avenue since 2014. The privately held company's cameras in River Forest, Berwyn and North Riverside issue citations at rates that far surpass even the busiest cameras in Chicago.
While no central database exists for Illinois red-light cameras, those operated near Oak Park by SafeSpeed may be among the most lucrative in the state, according to available records.
Under the revenue-sharing terms of its vendor contracts, SafeSpeed stands to collect about 40 percent of all paid tickets. The company's take on Harlem Avenue for tickets issued between January 2014 and October 2016 has been about $6.5 million, based on collected citations issued by River Forest, Berwyn and North Riverside. Red-light camera tickets worth millions more remain uncollected.
The ticketing business is clearly good business. How good?
One of SafeSpeed's politically connected owners was carless and bankrupt just a couple years before helping found the company. Today he prefers luxury vehicles like Ferrari and Bentley.
Campaign finance records show he and others involved in the company also like to spend their money on political candidates.
Since 2007, SafeSpeed, its principals and related business entities have made almost a quarter-million dollars in donations to Illinois politicians, including high-ranking state officials responsible for traffic safety regulations.
At least one of these officials, state Sen. Martin Sandoval, appears to have directly advocated last year on behalf of SafeSpeed with the Illinois Department of Transportation in the company's efforts to win approval for a controversial red-light camera in west suburban Oakbrook Terrace.
Campaign finance records show Sandoval's campaign committee has received more money from SafeSpeed, its officers and related businesses than any other politician in the state since 2007, the year SafeSpeed was founded.
SafeSpeed's reach in suburbs growing
SafeSpeed's ticketing business is not only good, it's growing across the Chicago area. The firm today operates in at least 20 northern Illinois communities, according to a letter from Illinois State Sen. Tom Cullerton to an IDOT official on behalf of the company last year, and new SafeSpeed cameras are being installed this month at the intersection of 22nd Street and Kingery Highway outside the Oakbrook Center shopping mall.
If those cameras operate like SafeSpeed's others, they will be among the most prolific ticketing machines in Illinois.
SafeSpeed cameras at Harlem and Cermak have issued more than $20 million in citations since 2014 and the firm's camera at North Avenue and Harlem in River Forest would qualify as the fourth-most valuable red-light camera in all of Chicago.
Further afield in Lake County, a trio of SafeSpeed cameras at a single intersection in tiny Lakemoor were identified by the Daily Herald as "easily the most lucrative" of all red-light cameras included in a 2014 survey of 32 north suburban communities.
Seemingly wherever SafeSpeed goes, red-light camera tickets -- and profits -- follow in eye-popping numbers.
So, who is SafeSpeed, and where did they come from?
Despite the firm's growing reach and profitability, no one has really asked that question before.
Company founders had no background in traffic safety
SafeSpeed LLC was formed in Illinois in June 2007 by a group of individuals who at the time appear to have had zero experience in traffic safety or control. In fact, three of the company's four founding members were at the time partners in a Loop-based business that handled janitorial contracts for the city of Chicago.
One of those partners, SafeSpeed President Nikki M. Zollar, is a former official in the administration of Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar and has longstanding ties to both Chicago Democrats and state GOP officials.
In addition to her business ventures, Zollar is a one-time Chicago Board of Elections chairwoman who today serves as a trustee at Chicago State University. She was appointed to that post by former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. Her husband is a high-ranking executive at Exelon.
Zollar brought political connections from both sides of the political aisle to SafeSpeed but it is unclear from a review of state records how she got into the red-light camera business. Her longtime primary business, Triad Consulting Services Inc., was founded by her mother as a business consulting firm and today appears to operate primarily as "a facilities management enterprise," according to a company website. The firm continues to maintain janitorial contracts with the city.
In response to written questions from the Landmark, SafeSpeed spokeswoman Yvonne Davila wrote, "Ms. Zollar is an attorney with a wealth of experience in many different fields … She is an entrepreneur whose ideas are not constrained."
According to Chicago economic disclosures, Zollar has two business partners at Triad Consulting -- Chris Lai and Khaled "Cliff" Manni. Both men joined Zollar in founding SafeSpeed.
Khaled Maani has spent his professional career of more than 25 years focused on designing and implementing "custodial and maintenance systems for all types of properties," according to an online professional biography.
It is unclear what expertise he brought to the red-light camera company, and he did not answer that question when it was posed in writing by the Landmark. Public records show Maani has a history of financial problems, including a 2015 federal tax lien for more than $92,000.
Lai is a former University of Illinois student who has dabbled in online start-ups, including a daily fantasy sports site that received media attention in 2015. SafeSpeed spokeswoman Davila claimed Lai is a former Ernst & Young analyst who "has an extensive technology background and is an entrepreneur."
Online records associate Lai as the registrar of 100 different internet domains since 2004, including websites for SafeSpeed and Triad. Today, Lai serves as SafeSpeed's chief operating officer.
Final SafeSpeed founder linked to clouted lawyer
The fourth SafeSpeed founder, whose name has never appeared on company corporate filings, was even more of an outlier -- a then-26-year-old former Loyola University urban studies major who just three years before helping to create the red-light camera company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
Omar Maani, the son of SafeSpeed co-founder Khaled Maani, had limited professional experience when he became a founder at SafeSpeed, and it is unclear what assets or skills he brought to the business.
SafeSpeed spokeswoman Davila claimed Omar Maani worked for Triad Consulting as a college student and that because of his relationship to Khaled Maani and "as a productive member of Triad, he was included in the development of SafeSpeed."
Whatever his contributions to the janitorial contracting firm, Omar Maani was not without his own potentially important political connections in the western suburbs. Bankruptcy court records show that prior to founding SafeSpeed, Omar Maani during college spent at least three years as a part-time law clerk for Giglio and Del Galdo and Associates. This was the same time period when he was also allegedly working for Triad Consulting.
Giglio and Del Galdo at the time was a small municipal law firm operating from offices inside Melrose Park's village hall. One of Omar Maani's bosses at the firm, Michael Del Galdo, would later go on to become an important political advisor to Cicero Town President Larry Dominick.
From his position in Cicero, where he has handled legal work for the town for more than a decade, Del Galdo has established himself as a busy and influential municipal lawyer across the south and west suburbs.
These include Berwyn, where Del Galdo has since 2009 performed legal work for the city and has served as an informal advisor to Mayor Robert Lovero. Del Galdo was advising Lovero when Berwyn officials in the fall of 2009 voted to contract some of the city's red-light camera operations with SafeSpeed.
Records show the Berwyn camera contract was among SafeSpeed's first, and it established the firm on Harlem Avenue. Within a few years, SafeSpeed would dominate red-light camera operations along the local Harlem Avenue corridor.
SafeSpeed ties to lawyer questioned earlier
SafeSpeed is a limited liability company controlled by a group of "members." The company's member roster has changed somewhat over the years but Illinois Secretary of State records show that in June 2009, two years after the company was organized, Del Galdo's name was added to SafeSpeed's member list in an annual report.
Three months after it appeared in company filings, however, Del Galdo's name was removed in an amendment filed by the company. That amendment is the only one of its kind filed by SafeSpeed in the company's history. The move drew media attention in September 2009 when the Chicago Tribune reported that the removal of Del Galdo's name from company records came on the same day Berwyn officials were set to vote on the red-light camera deal for SafeSpeed.
In comments to the Tribune, Del Galdo denied any connection with the firm, saying he had "no affiliation with SafeSpeed" and no "economic interest in SafeSpeed." He also expressed puzzlement why his name had ever appeared in company paperwork as a SafeSpeed member.
But in a 2009 letter to Berwyn's mayor and also in recent comments relayed to the Landmark through the company spokeswoman, Nikki Zollar identified Del Galdo as an early member of SafeSpeed.
According to the SafeSpeed spokeswoman, Del Galdo's relationship with the firm began in 2007, when he provided unspecified legal guidance for the company, and ended in 2009.
In an interview, spokeswoman Davila claimed Del Galdo "walked away" in 2009 when he realized the company could be slow to produce profits and that he faced potential conflicts of interest with his legal clients as a SafeSpeed member. Davila said she could not specify which clients posed a potential conflict for Del Galdo and that Zollar had "no clue" about Del Galdo's client list.
Del Galdo did not respond to written questions provided by the Landmark.
Maani ownership held through corporation
Del Galdo's former law clerk, Omar Maani, is a founder of SafeSpeed but his name has never appeared directly on company filings. Instead, the younger Maani has always maintained his member position in the business through a pair of Illinois corporations where he serves as the sole publicly identified officer.
He formed the first of those corporations, Strategy Inc., just one week before SafeSpeed was incorporated. The newly minted corporation almost immediately became a founding member of SafeSpeed, secretary of state records show. Two years later, a second Omar Maani business, BOC Enterprises, Inc., replaced Strategy Inc. as a member of SafeSpeed. BOC Enterprises today remains one of the four members of SafeSpeed.
Illinois law does not require private corporations to identify their shareholders and it is unclear whether Omar Maani is the sole owner of BOC Enterprises or whether other individuals hold a financial stake in the business and, by extension, in the profits of SafeSpeed.
In written comments, SafeSpeed spokeswoman Davila claimed Omar Maani is the sole shareholder of BOC Enterprises, Inc. She also claimed his Strategy Inc., which helped found SafeSpeed, "was never active or operated."
In a November 2015 email to state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-11th) seeking assistance for the company's efforts to win approval for red-light cameras in Oakbrook Terrace, Omar Maani identified himself as a SafeSpeed "principal."
State senators made IDOT contact for SafeSpeed
Records obtained by the Landmark through a Freedom of Information request show state Sen. Sandoval in late 2015 forwarded Maani's email to an IDOT official involved in the red-light camera approval process for Oakbrook Terrace.
"I encouraged Omar to drop u a line," Sandoval wrote to IDOT Deputy Director John Fortmann. "Ur assistance would be appreciated."
A couple months later, in February 2016, state Sen. Tom Cullerton wrote to IDOT's Fortmann on behalf of Oakbrook Terrace and SafeSpeed. Cullerton claimed SafeSpeed at that time operated in 20 different communities and was negotiating with six others. "I am writing to request your approval in allowing Oakbrook Terrace to begin implementation" of the red-light cameras on 22nd Street and Kingery Highway.
IDOT reportedly reversed course on an earlier denial and in late 2016 approved the SafeSpeed red-light camera in Oakbrook Terrace. Village officials in neighboring Oak Brook, who oppose the camera as a threat to the Oakbrook Center shopping mall, have threatened to file suit in order to stop the camera's installation.
Last week the Oak Brook Village Board passed an ordinance banning red-light cameras that included language alleging that "contractors promoting red light cameras throughout Illinois and the United States have sought to corrupt local law enforcement by turning it into a moneymaker for political leaders."
Red-light tickets and Ferraris
Because SafeSpeed is a private business, the firm's profits are not public. But DuPage County traffic court records shed some possible light on Omar Maani's finances -- or at least his taste in cars.
Twice in the last five years he's been ticketed while driving super-luxury vehicles, including a brand new Ferrari and a less-brand-new Bentley.
Ticket records did not include model information for either vehicle but the 2012 Ferrari was gray and the Bentley, also a 2012 model, was black and it carried a set of personalized tags. Records show Maani was caught speeding on Ogden Avenue in the Ferrari in 2012 and was cited for improper lane usage while piloting the Bentley in 2015.
In addition to his position at SafeSpeed, Omar Maani is involved in government-sponsored property development in Cicero, where his former boss Del Galdo remains an influential figure.
Maani's Presidio Capital LLC in 2016 received Community Development Block Grants funds from Cook County to help underwrite a 29-unit townhouse development in Cicero. The firm also has reportedly participated in Cicero projects funded by the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program. DuPage County court records indicate Maani's Presidio Capital LLC has also performed work on behalf of the Cicero Health Department.
Almost $250K to state, local pols
Individuals and companies associated with SafeSpeed have contributed almost a quarter-million dollars to political campaign committees since 2007.
The bulk of those donations have been made by Triad Consulting Services, the SafeSpeed sister company operated by Nikki Zollar, Khaled Maani and Chris Lai. Illinois campaign finance records show Triad since 2007 has made $112,550 in donations to state and local politicians.
State Sen. Martin Sandoval has received $15,500 of those funds, while Cicero Town President Larry Dominick has received $8,100 from Triad. Berwyn Mayor Robert Lovero has received $7,000, and records show Triad last fall made $20,000 in donations to campaign funds benefitting Illinois Democrats prior to the November elections.
Triad also contributed $2,500 to the political committee for Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci in late October 2016. IDOT approved an Oakbrook Terrace red-light camera permit at 22nd Street and Kingery Highway the day after that donation, according to Chicago Tribune reporting.
SafeSpeed, LLC has provided campaign cash to local politicians in towns where the company maintains red-light camera contracts -- including Melrose Park, Berwyn and North Riverside -- and the firm last summer made a $5,000 donation to newly installed Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx.
SafeSpeed co-founder Omar Maani has been generous, too. Records show Maani and companies controlled by him have made campaign contributions totaling more than $62,000 since 2007. Cicero Town President Larry Dominick has received $17,650 of those funds.
Sandoval a favorite politician
The biggest beneficiary of contributions from individuals and companies affiliated with SafeSpeed has been Martin Sandoval, who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and represents portions of Cicero, Riverside, Lyons and Chicago's Southwest Side.
Companies and individuals with ties to SafeSpeed have donated $37,500 to Sandoval's political committee since 2007.
Triad and SafeSpeed last September each made $10,000 donations to Sandoval, and companies controlled by Omar Maani contributed $6,000 to Sandoval's political war chest between 2015 and 2016, records show.
State Dems get cash, too
Last fall, Triad Consulting Services gave $10,000 to the Democratic Party of Illinois, a committee chaired by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Triad contributed another $10,000 during that same time period to the Senate Democratic Victory Fund, which is chaired by Illinois Senate President John Cullerton.
Both Sandoval and John Cullerton were Illinois Senate sponsors of the 2006 law that paved the way for red-light camera enforcement in Illinois.