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Former Illinois State Sen. Martin Sandoval Promised To Go 'Balls To The Wall' For Red Light Camera Firm SafeSpeed

by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Former Illinois State Sen. Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty on Tuesday to agreeing to act as a "protector" for red light camera company SafeSpeed in exchange for thousands of dollars in bribes, and is cooperating with federal prosecutors in a sweeping corruption probe of SafeSpeed, ComEd, and others.

Federal prosecutors said Sandoval also took additional bribes in connection with "corrupt activities with other public officials" in exchange for using his position as a state senator and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee to benefit other people and their business interests. Those other public officials are not named in the plea deal.

"I take full responsibility for my actions. I'm ashamed, and I'm sorry. I want to apologize to the people of Illinois and to my constituents. I intend to fully cooperate with the federal government," Sandoval said after his arraignment at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Sandoval, 56, is the first person to be charged and convicted in the wake of a sweeping federal investigation involving several local elected officials, the red light camera industry, ComEd, casinos and more.

U.S. Attorney John Lausch would not discuss the details of any of those investigations, or reveal who Sandoval eventually might testify against.

"What Mr. Sandoval has agreed to do, he's agreed to testify on any matter that we ask him testify about," Lausch said.

However, according to a search warrant from a federal raid on Sandoval's home and offices last September indicates the feds are casting a wide net in their ongoing corruption probe. The warrant revealed federal investigators were seeking evidence related to a vast array of subjects -- including SafeSpeed; ComEd; Cook County Commissioner and McCook Village President Jeff Tobolski; businessman Michael Vondra; video gambling company Gold Rush Gaming; several unnamed Illinois Department of Transportation officials; and several asphalt, concrete, and construction companies.

Lausch declined to speculate why Sandoval would have taken bribes after so many public officials in Illinois have been convicted of similar crimes.

"I don't know the answer to that question," he said. "It's a very stubborn problem we seem to have here in Illinois."

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In total, prosecutors say Sandoval took $250,000 in bribes from crimes involving more than five people, including $70,000 in connection to his support for the red light camera industry.

Prosecutors did not name SafeSpeed in the plea agreement with Sandoval, but he did identify them himself when he pleaded guilty, perhaps unintentionally.

"I accepted money in exchange for the use of my office as a state senator to help SafeSpeed, or Company A," Sandoval told U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood.

In a statement, Safespeed spokesman Dennis Culloton said the company was not aware of the bribes paid to Sandoval:

"We are shocked by the information in today's plea agreement and the betrayal of public trust both by Sen. Sandoval and a person who had an interest in the company, who was not authorized by the company to engage in any illegal behavior or make any commitments or contributions on behalf of the company or its executives. It appears both individuals committed crimes without SafeSpeed's knowledge and in violation not only of the law but of SafeSpeed's culture. We are shocked and saddened by that allegation. We are fully committed to investigating these matters and sharing any information we find with federal authorities. We applaud the government for rooting out corruption."

Prosecutors say Sandoval told a representative of the firm, who was cooperating with a federal probe, that he would "go balls to the wall for anything you ask me" during a meeting at a Burr Ridge restaurant in July 2018. A month later, he took $15,000 in cash from that person at another meeting at the same restaurant.

Sandoval was charged Monday with one count of bribery involving federal programs and one count of fraud and false statements. He pleaded guilty to both counts on Tuesday, and faces a maximum of 13 years in prison.

Under terms of the plea agreement, federal sentencing guidelines would call for a sentence of 121 to 151 months, but prosecutors have agreed to recommend a more lenient sentence if he fully and truthfully cooperates with the federal probe.

Federal prosecutors said Sandoval's scheme to solicit bribes from SafeSpeed began around 2016, when he asked an unnamed representative of the company -- identified in the plea deal only as "CW-1" -- for $20,000 in annual campaign contributions from the red light camera company for his support of its business interests.

The plea deal only identifies the red light firm as "Company A," but Sandoval himself later revealed the company he was helping was SafeSpeed, which operates red light camera systems in several suburbs.

Sandoval later agreed to split up the company's annual campaign contribution into smaller amounts -- to be given by an entity related to SafeSpeed -- because the company's president didn't want the money to "shout out," meaning raise a red flag.

In March 2018, Sandoval spoke to CW-1 on the phone and arranged for a $10,000 cash payment in exchange for blocking proposed legislation to ban red light cameras.

Months later, Sandoval also arranged for $5,000 monthly payments from the SafeSpeed representative, according to the plea deal.

During a meeting with that person at a Burr Ridge restaurant in July 2018, Sandoval expressed frustration that other people had been able to get consulting fees from SafeSpeed in exchange for help installing red light cameras -- in the form of proceeds from each ticket issued. Sandoval demanded to know why he didn't get that kind of offer for the help he'd already given the company."

"I galls me to know, but because we've established such a great relationship, um, 'cause you know I'll go balls to the walls for anything you ask me…. It's hard for me to swallow how [people] make so much off of you. Right? And I gotta do the work," Sandoval said, according to the plea agreement.

During the same meeting, the SafeSpeed representative asked Sandoval how much he should be paid, but Sandoval told him "I can't say. It would have to come from you. That's just not my style," according to the plea deal.

The representative ultimately agreed to pay Sandoval $5,000 a month. A month later, the two met again, and Sandoval took $15,000 in cash for his "protection" of SafeSpeed.

Federal prosecutors said Sandoval accepted $70,000 in bribes from the representative for SafeSpeed by last September, when federal agents raided his Senate office, his district office, and his home.

In addition to the bribes he took for his support of SafeSpeed, the plea deal revealed Sandoval accepted tens of thousands of dollars more in connection with "corrupt activities with other public officials ... in return for using his position as an Illinois State Senator to attempt to benefit those people and their business interests."

Federal prosecutors would not elaborate on who those other people are, but said Sandoval accepted more than $250,000 in bribes overall, involving more than five participants in his criminal activity.

Sandoval also also under-reported his income on federal tax returns in an effort to conceal the illicit payments, according to the plea deal. Sandoval reported an income of $129,905 in 2017, when his actual income was at least $259,255 -- including more than $10,000 in bribes.

According to the feds, Sandoval also under-reported his income from 2012 through 2016, although the plea deal does not reveal by how much.

In addition to his possible prison sentence, Sandoval is agreeing to restitution of $72,441 to the IRS and another $13,384 to the Illinois Department of Revenue. He also must reimburse the federal government $70,000 for the cost of his prosecution.

Sandoval is being released on $10,000 unsecured bond, pending sentencing.

A sentencing date has not yet been set, but a status hearing has been scheduled for July 21 to begin scheduling sentencing matters.

"At that point, I think we'll have a better sense as to when the cooperation will be complete, including any testimony that might be necessary," Lausch said.

In September, the FBI raided Sandoval's office at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, his office in Cicero, and his home in the Gage Park neighborhood. Agents could be seen leaving his Senate offices and his home with cardboard boxes, brown paper bags marked evidence, computer equipment, and more.

Days later the FBI also raided the village halls in Lyons and McCook, and visited the village hall in Summit -- all suburbs within Sandoval's district.

ComEd and parent company Exelon later reveled they had been subpoenaed by the feds for "records of any communications" with Sandoval. A representative of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois, which filed the subpoena, declined to discuss it. A ComEd representative said the company intends to comply with any and all inquiries, and they've formed a special oversight committee to oversee it.

Within days of the subpoena becoming public, top Exelon executive Anne Pramaggiore abruptly resigned. Pramaggiore had been CEO of Exelon Utilities, which oversees the energy giant's six local gas and electric utility companies.

Weeks after the raids, Sandoval stepped down as Transportation Committee chairman, and eventually announced his resignation from the Senate in December.

Sandoval's relationship with ComEd goes back to 2007. Since then, his campaign has received $26,250 in donations, making him one of the top 25 recipients of ComEd donations during that period.

His other connection to ComEd is his daughter, Angie, who according to her Linkedin profile has been working for ComEd for nearly seven years – taking on the role of senior account manager in June.

An Exelon spokesman would not connect Pramaggiore's resignation to the Sandoval investigation, but the timeline and the timing of Pramaggiore's retirement – along with information from sources – indicate a strong connection.

Last week, Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci also resigned in apparent connection to the red light camera probe.

According to published reports, the FBI seized $60,000 from a safe in Ragucci's home in October.

One month later, Ragucci's campaign paid $30,000 to attorney Thomas Crooks for legal fees, according to state campaign finance records.

According to published reports, Ragucci is one of several elected officials involved in a federal probe of red light camera firm SafeSpeed, which operates the red light cameras in Oakbrook Terrace and several other suburbs.

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