When it came to the red-light camera industry in Chicago, former state Sen. Martin Sandoval looked upon himself as its “protector” – and a handsomely paid one at that.
The one-time powerful Democratic legislator who represented the 11th District, which includes the south end of Riverside, accepted roughly $70,000 in bribes from an unnamed red-light camera company official between 2016 and 2019 and more than $250,000 in bribes in exchange for benefitting the business interests of others.
Those details were among other explosive revelations contained in the federal plea agreement unsealed on Jan. 28 after Sandoval pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and lying on a federal income tax return.
According to the plea agreement, Sandoval faces up to 13 years in federal prison – 10 for bribery and three for the tax offense. But, prosecutors could ask Judge Andrea Wood for much less jail time, depending on how cooperative Sandoval remains as investigators continue their wide-ranging corruption probe involving several area politicians, the red-light camera company SafeSpeed and other businesses whose officials have been very generous with campaign contributions throughout the years.
Sandoval’s sentencing will be postponed “until after the conclusion of his cooperation,” according to the plea agreement, which also states that Sandoval has agreed to cooperate fully with federal investigators.
The plea agreement reveals that beginning around 2016, Sandoval “solicited, agreed to accept and accepted” cash bribes and “other benefits” from “someone who had an interest in Company A,” an unnamed red-light camera company, in exchange for Sandoval blocking legislation harmful to the red-light camera business and to intercede on the company’s behalf and influence the Illinois Department of Transportation to allow installation of more red-light cameras around the state.
In addition to representing the 11th District as a senator, Sandoval was chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
While the plea agreement doesn’t name SafeSpeed as Company A, the search warrant issued for the Sept. 22, 2019 federal raids on Sandoval’s Senate and campaign offices as well as his home stated agents were looking for documents relating to SafeSpeed, its officers and employees, among other things.
The unnamed red-light camera company official, referred to in the plea agreement as CW-1, began cooperating with federal authorities around 2018 and recorded conversations between him and Sandoval, detailing how payoffs would be made and for how much.
The Chicago Tribune has identified CW-1 as Omar Maani, one of four founding members of SafeSpeed.
In January 2017, the Landmark revealed for the first time Maani’s role as a founding member of the red-light camera company, through a company called BOC Enterprises, in a two-part report on red-light cameras along Harlem Avenue and on SafeSpeed’s corporate structure, history and other companies related to top SafeSpeed officials.
At the time of SafeSpeed’s founding, Maani was just 26 years old and it was unclear just what he brought to the table financially or otherwise. He is the son of another SafeSpeed founder, Khaled “Cliff” Manni. At the time of SafeSpeed’s founding, Khaled Maani was a business partner with the two other SafeSpeed founders, Nikki Zollar and Chris Lai, in a firm called Triad Consulting.
Only three years before helping found SafeSpeed, Omar Maani had declared bankruptcy. He also had worked as for Triad Consulting as a college student.
A SafeSpeed spokeswoman told the Landmark in 2017 that because of his relationship to Khaled Maani and “as a productive member of Triad, [Omatr Maani] was included in the development of SafeSpeed.”
Initially, according to the plea agreement, Sandoval asked for $20,000 annually in campaign donations in return for his support of red-light cameras in the state Senate. In March 2018, Sandoval agreed to take $10,000 in cash from CW-1 to block legislation harmful to the red-light industry.
Then in July 2018, Sandoval offered to be the red-light industry’s “protector” for the sum of $5,000 a month. Knowing that red-light cameras had faced scrutiny in the press, Sandoval told CW-1 that the monthly payments would be a good investment.
“I’m not trying to be dramatic,” Sandoval was recorded saying, “but I’m telling you the vultures would be all over that s— [red light cameras] if you had the wrong person there.
“I think the protector aspect, it never changes. If there’s a … bill or something like that, if you set a fee, a protector fee, unless there’s something really f—ing extraordinary.”
Sandoval’s criminal activities weren’t only on behalf of the red-light camera industry, according to the plea agreement.
Prosecutors said that he “accepted money from other people in return for using his position as an Illinois State Senator to benefit those people and their business interests.”
In all, according to the plea agreement, Sandoval accepted more than $250,000 in bribes and that the criminal activity involved more than five people. He also directed others, referred to in the plea agreement as Co-Schemer A and Individual A, to commit crimes.
In addition to the potential prison time, Sandoval has agreed to pay restitution in the amount of $72,441 to the United States Treasury and another $13,384 to the Illinois Department of Revenue.
Sandoval was also ordered to pay $70,000 “as compensation for government funds the [he] received during the investigation of the case.” He’s been credited for roughly $21,000 the government has already seized during raids conducted by federal agents on Sept. 24 and Oct. 17, 2019.