The red-light camera company entangled in a federal corruption investigation and an airport janitorial contractor in Chicago are among the clout-heavy companies getting large amounts of federal funding to weather the coronavirus pandemic, according to documents released this week by Trump administration officials.
Another loan from Washington’s new Paycheck Protection Program went to the security firm owned by Sean Morrison, the south suburban politician who leads the Cook County Republicans and is a commissioner on the county board.
Newly released data about the PPP initiative shows some of the more than $500 billion disbursed by the feds during the COVID-19 pandemic has gone to companies with connections to President Trump, his administration and other politicians.
In Illinois, more than $22 billion in PPP funding has been funneled in the past few months to about 202,000 recipients, in a vast effort to limit job losses resulting from the pandemic.
The data disclosed this week cover about 27,000 loans of at least $150,000 each to businesses, nonprofits and others in Illinois.
The U.S. Small Business Administration has declined to detail the exact sums of any of the loans. The program is meant to aid “small businesses” but the forgivable loans have been spread to a wide array of interests in the Chicago area and elsewhere, including brand-name companies, world-renowned cultural institutions, tourist attractions, private schools and even megachurches. (Chicago Public Media, which operates WBEZ, also got a $2.8M PPP loan, as described in the above linked story.)
“Some layoffs were necessary”
The federal data also show SafeSpeed, the red-light camera company based in downtown Chicago, got a PPP loan worth between $1 million and $2 million in early April, days after Congress approved the program and Trump signed the coronavirus-aid measure.
The big check from Washington comes as SafeSpeed, which operates cameras in many Chicago suburbs, finds its name surfacing repeatedly in the wide-ranging federal investigation that’s rocked Illinois politics in the past year.
Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Democrat from Chicago, pleaded guilty in January to federal bribery and tax evasion charges tied to his “balls to the walls” support of the red-light camera industry.
“Your honor, I accepted money in exchange for using my office as a state senator to help SafeSpeed,” Sandoval told the judge in his case earlier this year.
Then, in February, federal authorities indicted Patrick Doherty, the top aide to Democratic Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, on three counts of bribery related to his side job as a “sales agent” for SafeSpeed.
In a statement sent Tuesday to WBEZ, SafeSpeed spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney said, “We are a small, minority-owned business that employs a diverse workforce that is predominantly minority and we wanted to do all we could to preserve as many jobs as possible. Although some layoffs were necessary, we were able to keep a core staff employed.”
Gaffney declined to say exactly how much the company had received through the PPP loan.
Competing camera firms also got PPP funding, records show, including Redspeed Illinois of Lombard ($350,000 to $1 million) and Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems ($2 million to $5 million), which was Chicago’s first red-light camera contractor until it became embroiled in its own bribery scandal.
Controversial airport janitorial firm
The janitorial contractor at O’Hare International Airport got an amount within the most-lucrative category — between $5 million and $10 million — thanks to the PPP program.
The city of Chicago has paid United Maintenance Co. more than $160.5 million in the past eight years under its deal to clean terminals at O’Hare, according to city documents.
The city hired the company to clean O’Hare terminals in 2012, signing a five-year contract that was valued at as much as $99.4 million. But when the original deal ended, it was continued by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and it has twice been extended by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, records show. The most recent one-year extension was granted last month and stretches the contract into June 2021.
The company’s president, Richard Simon, is a former Chicago Police officer and friend of former Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy. After he was forced out as top cop in 2015, McCarthy opened up a new business in the South Loop building owned by Simon and worked with Simon’s company.
Another company led by Simon has received a PPP loan worth between $2 million and $5 million, according to the SBA data.
Simon did not return messages Tuesday.
In a statement, Lightfoot aides said United Maintenance “has been excellent” since the pandemic began but the city is in the process of seeking bids for janitorial services at its main airport for the first time in nearly a decade. The administration’s “goal” is to award new deals “before the current one expires next June.”
City officials praised United Maintenance for its “performance and flexibility in the COVID era, particularly with regard to adopting best-in-class cleaning and sanitizing services and obtaining large amounts of cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer when those products were in short supply.”
In 2016, United Maintenance paid nearly $850,000 to settle a wage-theft lawsuit filed by its workers at O’Hare. The year before that, Rivers Casino fired United Maintenance over Simon’s ties to reputed organized crime figures.
Labor leaders also have criticized the city’s dealings with the company, which has resisted efforts to organize its workers.
Simon long has been a major campaign contributor to Chicago politicians, including Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, who is facing federal corruption charges.
“Godsend” for GOP leader’s company
Morrison, the county GOP chairman and county board member, said his Alsip-based Morrison Security Corp. got a PPP loan worth about $610,000.
“To many, many private-sector businesses, it’s been a godsend,” Morrison told WBEZ. “The whole purpose is to be able to keep people employed, which it’s done. It’s certainly done that.”
He said the loan has saved “multiple dozens of people” who work for him from losing their jobs and going on unemployment.
Morrison said he has strongly encouraged constituents who own businesses to apply for PPP loans from the time the program was approved in March and he personally applied early in the process.
Morrison publicly weighed in to defend Trump in his verbal battles with Lightfoot and Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow @dmihalopoulos.