Feds Charge South Suburban Mayor With Corruption

Crestwood’s Lou Presta became the latest Illinois public official to get indicted in a wide-ranging federal investigation.

Chicago red-light camera
In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, a sign warns motorists of the presence of a red light camera in Chicago. M. Spencer Green / AP Photo
Chicago red-light camera
In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, a sign warns motorists of the presence of a red light camera in Chicago. M. Spencer Green / AP Photo

Feds Charge South Suburban Mayor With Corruption

Crestwood’s Lou Presta became the latest Illinois public official to get indicted in a wide-ranging federal investigation.

The mayor of south suburban Crestwood on Friday joined the long list of Chicago-area politicians accused of corruption in a wide-ranging federal investigation.

Federal prosecutors in Chicago indicted Lou Presta, 69, in an alleged bribery scheme involving a red-light camera company, and they say he fibbed when confronted about a cash payoff — claiming the envelope he got was empty.

The office of U.S. Attorney John Lausch alleged that Presta also filed false income tax returns and lied when investigators confronted him with a recording of a March 2018 meeting the mayor had with the camera company representative.

The feds say Presta took an envelope with $5,000 in cash.

But when they grilled the mayor about that meeting a year and a half later, authorities say he “falsely stated that there was no money in the envelope.”

Presta hung up on a WBEZ reporter who called him on his cell phone after the indictment was unsealed.

According to court records, veteran defense lawyer Thomas Breen is representing Presta in the federal case. Breen issued a statement Friday afternoon saying Presta denies the charges.

“Mr. Presta never violated the trust the people of Crestwood placed in him,” the statement read in part. “We anticipate that the evidence will show that Mr. Presta never did what his campaign contributor asked him to do. Mr. Presta remained committed to the people who had elected him Mayor of Crestwood.”

The indictment against Presta did not name the camera company. But Crestwood has cameras operated under a deal with SafeSpeed — a Chicago-based company mired in the federal corruption probe — and officials in the suburb have acknowledged that a politically-connected salesman from the company pitched its services to them.

SafeSpeed executives have not been charged. In a statement Friday afternoon, the company said it did not condone the alleged wrongdoing and supports the federal investigation.

“SafeSpeed does not condone the conduct alleged in the indictment against Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta. There is no place for that conduct by public officials, or people who operate in the red-light camera industry,” the statement read in part. “SafeSpeed certainly does not tolerate this behavior. The company holds its employees and representatives to high standards of conduct and ethics. SafeSpeed will continue to take the appropriate action to ensure these standards are followed.”

In pleading guilty to corruption charges earlier this year, former Democratic state lawmaker Martin Sandoval admitted he had “accepted money in exchange for using my office as a state senator to help SafeSpeed.”

And in February, the feds indicted Patrick Doherty, the top aide to former Democratic Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski of McCook, on three counts of bribery related to his side gig as a “sales agent” for SafeSpeed.

Amid the scandal, SafeSpeed has received a forgivable loan worth between $1 million and $2 million from a federal program intended to help businesses pay their workers during the coronavirus pandemic, according to government documents.

The feds interviewed Presta in September, according to court records. That same month, they raided Sandoval’s office at the Illinois Capitol and also searched village halls in other suburbs, including Lyons, McCook and Summit.

Presta has been the mayor of Crestwood since 2013, but he has had personal financial problems since long before he took office, records show. He filed for bankruptcy in 2003 and 2007, and has repeatedly been hit with liens for unpaid taxes by the Internal Revenue Service and the state.

During a failed run for a Cook County board seat in 2018, Presta said he was in financial trouble because he “goofed up” and lost money in “an investment deal with property developers” about 20 years before that.

At the same time, Presta told the Chicago Sun-Times he had not yet paid back the feds and the state, but he said he had worked out a monthly installment plan with the IRS.

On Friday, in addition to the charges related to the alleged bribery, the feds hit Presta with two counts of willfully filing a false income tax return, in 2015 and 2018, and one count of failing to file an income tax return, in 2014.

Last month, five former Crestwood police officers filed a federal civil lawsuit against Presta and other officials of the suburb alleging political favoritism and union-busting.

According to court records, the five ex-cops accuse village officials of covering up or ignoring “unethical and sometimes criminal activity” by loyal cops whom they promoted. But the plaintiffs allege officials unfairly punished anybody who questioned the village police chief, and they say they were terminated unlawfully last year.

Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter. Follow them at @tonyjarnold and @dmihalopoulos.