In the midst of Chicago trying to end rigorous federal oversights into their hiring and firing practices, a bribery scandal has erupted. Sweeping actions to avert unfair and unlawful political hiring may have helped get the city past scrutinizing, watchful eyes, but this recent criminal complaint of a former Chicago city official may be more indicative of what lies beneath the shiny new exterior.
John Bills, former managing deputy commissioner of Chicago’s transportation department, has been formally charged with federal program bribery. Bills served on the city’s contract evaluation team and managed the city’s red light camera program. He has been charged with illegally steering the contract for that program to Redflex Traffic Systems, even before a ticket was issued back in 2003.
Authorities allege that Bills met clandestinely with a Redflex official to unfairly coach and assist the development of the business, which has become the largest of its type in the country. In return, the allegations state, Bills received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. He is said to have spent the money on a vacation home, boat, convertible Mercedes and even a condominium near the company’s Arizona headquarters.
These revelations are coming to light in the wake of tremendous efforts on the part of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration to end the heavy federal oversight. Shedding the city’s reputation as a place where political supporters often have government jobs steered their way has been difficult, and news of this bribery scandal might take the fight back to square one.
More than Chicago’s reputation has taken a hit with their problems of cronyism, as the court-appointed federal monitor has cost the city $6.6 million. An additional $4.3 million has been doled out for counseling and legal expenses, and since 2008 the city has settled over $12 million in hiring-related cases.
The push to clean up the city’s corrupt hiring practices, a struggle that took over forty-five years, would free up over $20 million in earmarked funds related to the oversight. Those funds might never be released and freedom from “big brother” might be a pipe dream with the new case against one of Chicago’s former officials.
The windy city has had to fight hard to get the bureaucratic and costly burden of rigorous oversight off its back. The necessary checks and balances have cost the people of the city because of the wrongdoings of a handful of leaders. Despite all the progress that has been made to rectify Chicago’s reputation and spare the taxpayer the extra expense, it seems that beneath the surface is still a layer of past wrongs to be accounted for. Given that countless more contracts and job bids were awarded in the city throughout the years, chances are that Bills is simply another indicator of crimes that ran unchecked among officials for far too long.
Progress to varnish over a legacy of deeply seated corruption, which has worked so far to steer perception of Chicago back into a favorable legal status, is on the cusp of bearing fruit. However, an ugly and untimely bribery scandal like this is a reminder of what Chicago was like, and how far the city still has to come.
Opinion by J. Benjamin