Colorful past for insider at center of red light probe
John Bills was a top Madigan operative with family links to the mob who partied on the field with World Series champs. Now he's at the center of the feds' red light bribery case.
By David Kidwell,
John Bills fits right in to the world of colorful characters who do the heavy lifting for Chicago politicians every election — raising donations, knocking on doors and delivering all of the vote.
But in Bills' case, the colors have often been a bit brighter. A South Side native, his family history is dotted with connections to organized crime. A huge White Sox fan, he got a job with the club, celebrated the World Series victory on the field with players and still sports a replica championship ring.
A veteran political worker for House Speaker Michael Madigan, he earned a reputation as a top fundraiser and vote-getter in the vaunted 13th Ward Democratic Organization who fell in and out of favor with his boss and with fellow precinct captains who turned to him when they couldn't make their numbers.
Federal investigators last week painted another picture of Bills, as the linchpin in a decadelong corruption scheme that brought red light cameras to Chicago.
The bribery scandal, among the most brazen ever to envelop City Hall, centers at least for now on Bills, a 32-year bureaucrat portrayed in a court filing last week as a man unembarrassed by his own greed, whose demands for more never ceased and who pitted one bidder against another in order to sweeten his own deal.
That version of Bills — one that he and his attorney adamantly deny — is the one federal prosecutors would use to pursue their case that he abused his office and took as much as $2 million in bribes for steering the red light camera contract worth more than $120 million.
But Bills, 52, is also a father and a husband, the life of the party, a man friends describe as jovial and always ready to give his time to help friends and strangers alike.
"Whether it was at City Hall, or at the precinct, or working to get the players to a charity golfing event, John has always been a guy you can count on to get things done, a point person," said Tom Ryan, 66, a retired city employee who once worked for Bills and is one of his best friends.
"That's the John Bills I know," Ryan said. "That stuff I read in those charging papers? That is not the John I know."
In the fallout of what could be the first of many charges in Chicago's ongoing red light camera investigation, triggered by Tribune reporting, questions have emerged about how one midlevel bureaucrat gets the juice to single-handedly steer such a lucrative contract and why he so adamantly refuses to cooperate with federal authorities looking to expand their investigation.
Bills has argued he never had the clout and he has no information to help prosecutors. But a closer look reveals an extended family steeped for decades in Chicago's patronage politics and an even more insular organization, the Chicago mob.
His cousin Guy was an outfit turncoat who entered the federal witness protection program. His uncle was once shot during a brawl by Angelo "the Hook" La Pietra, who would later become an infamous South Side mob boss. His dad, who spent 35 years working in the city's Forestry Department, was arrested in his youth for taking bets on horses.
Interviews with a half dozen friends and 13th Ward acquaintances of Bills, along with public records, paint a portrait of Bills as hard-partying, and someone with a reputation for sometimes embellishing tales to pump up his own importance.
"John always liked to talk," said one friend who knew Bills from his work for Madigan at the 13th Ward. "Sometimes we would all just look at one another and wonder, 'Did he just say that?'
"I remember one time we were all sitting and waiting for a precinct captains meeting and he was complaining about a trip to Miami and the crappy hotel some contractor bought him down there," the friend said. "It didn't register at the time that he might be talking about the camera company, but we couldn't believe he would just be so open about it.
"It was almost like he was proud of it," the friend said.
For people inside Madigan's political operation, talking openly about its inside dealings is nearly impossible. But several contacted by the Tribune agreed to speak about their dealings with Bills on the condition their names not be used.
"John was always making it known how close he was to Madigan," said one close friend. "It was always Mike says this and Mike told him that. We knew he was a top moneymaker, but we all took most of that with a grain of salt. You had to know John."
Ryan said Bills was valuable to the Madigan operation.
"He was a good precinct captain, one of the best," Ryan said. "You never saw John for three weeks before an election because he was out knocking on doors. He'd go back three, four times if he had to, making sure people were voting, getting rides, anything they needed."
For decades Bills was known as a top-earning precinct captain for Madigan, always making his quotas and sometimes raking in as much as $10,000 in fundraising tickets. Bills often sold tickets to his own employees in the city Bureau of Electricity, dubbed "Madigan Electric" at a criminal trial because of the number of 13th Ward political workers with jobs there.
"Yeah, he expected his guys to buy tickets — that's just the way it was," said another acquaintance who worked for the bureau for 20 years, much of it under Bills. "But John wasn't alone in that, there were a lot of guys like that."
Bills was so successful as a moneymaker that he would often cover for other precinct captains who fell short of their quotas, several interviewed recalled. "Some of us just weren't as into it as he was so we would procrastinate and come up short," one said. "Sometimes John would offer to let us use his overage, for 60 cents on the dollar.
"There always had to be something in it for John."
Through his attorney, Nishay Sanan, Bills denied ever charging for his help making fundraising quotas.
Almost every year, Bills would organize at least one trip to the Super Bowl or World Series for his inner circle of up to eight friends — mostly other Madigan precinct captains or City Hall co-workers.
"I can tell you we always had a good time," said one regular attendee. "John was the one who always collected the cash for the hotel or whatever. Looking back on it now that I know there might have been someone else picking up the tab, you have to wonder whether he was making any money off us too."
White Sox fanatic
Bills is a lifelong avid White Sox fan, who worked for the team as a bat boy when he was a kid. His friends said Bills was ecstatic in 1999, when he landed a part-time job as a clubhouse attendant with the team.
He relished his ability to hobnob with players, even as he was teased by his inner circle.
"His job was to hold their jock straps, literally," said one longtime friend. "I mean, that was his actual job. We always gave him a hard time about it, but he loved it. According to him, he was practically managing the team."
A highlight of his time with the Sox was the day in Houston in 2005 when the team won the World Series. There in the celebratory scrum on the pitcher's mound is John Bills with his arms raised in the air, his photograph beamed around the world.
Bills often talked about his close relationship with the players, even suggesting to friends he once bought a used Mercedes from a player — although the stories differ on which player.
"He told me it belonged to Aaron Rowand," said one friend. Federal authorities, who have interviewed many of Bills' closest friends and collected some of the same legendary tales, have investigated the possibility that the Mercedes they say Bills bought with bribe money once belonged to first baseman Paul Konerko.
When contacted by the Tribune, both Konerko and Rowand, who is no longer playing baseball, said they never sold a car to John Bills.
Friends interviewed by the Tribune said Bills often told entertaining stories about his days with the White Sox, but it was difficult to discern fact from fiction.
"One story he liked to tell was the day he was on the field before a game and spotted Mayor (Richard) Daley in his box," said one friend. "It was a day game so, of course, John being John, he wanted everyone around him to know that he knew the mayor so he went over to him and said hi.
"According to John the mayor said, 'Hello John,' and then sort of lowering his brow said, 'John, you're not on the clock are you?'"
"Of course, the way John tells it, he was on the clock, but he told the mayor 'no,'" the friend said.
A Tribune review of Bills' city payroll records found no evidence to suggest he was working both jobs at the same time. Federal authorities have asked the White Sox for Bills' pay records.
Both Bills' lawyer and his friend Ryan said Bills never worked for the Sox while on the city clock.
"No way, there were a lot of guys at the city who were jealous of John because of all the promotions he got, so there were a lot of guys who would have loved to catch John leaving early like that," Ryan said. "No way."
Bills was fired by the White Sox in 2007, after a "transgression involving White Sox property," said Scott Reifert, a club spokesman. He declined to elaborate.
One friend said Bills repeatedly sold White Sox memorabilia on eBay.
"I remember once I got call from John asking for a favor," said the friend. "A few minutes later he shows up at my door with eight signed Frank Thomas bats, asking me if I would mind mailing them to some guy in California.
"He told me he didn't want anything coming back to his address."
Through his attorney, Bills denied selling bats or doing anything inappropriate with club memorabilia and said the Daley encounter never happened.
Reifert declined to discuss the specific reason for Bills' firing, but he said it would be a violation of White Sox policy to sell such memorabilia. Reifert also said the White Sox are curious where Bills obtained the World Series ring he is wearing in a photograph published by the Tribune.
"I can tell you it was never issued to him by the White Sox," Reifert said.
Reifert also questioned another photograph of a mounted silver presentation bat once posted online that reads "Presented to John A. Bills, congratulations and good luck on your retirement from the Chicago White Sox Organization, June 30, 2011."
"I have no idea where that came from, but it wasn't from the White Sox," he said.
According to records from Bills' 2011 divorce, the value of his White Sox memorabilia collection tops $10,000. His black Cadillac still sports White Sox vanity plates with his initials.
Bills' attorney has confirmed that federal investigators were looking into his client's sports memorabilia collection and speaking to his circle of friends.
Friends also knew Bills to be a hard-partier, something that led him to acknowledge a drinking problem. In July 2000, records show, he was arrested on a DUI charge after he lost control of his Cadillac and crashed into a bank parking lot at 113th Street and Cicero Avenue in Alsip.
According to his arrest report, he had a blood alcohol level of .22. Court records show the charge was dismissed.
"John has had problems in his life related to a drinking problem, but since then he has straightened himself out," said Sanan, his lawyer. "That was 14 years ago."
Family's mob ties
Records also show that Bills comes from a family steeped in ties to South Side political organizations and the Chicago mob.
According to archived law enforcement records, Bills father — John A. Bills Sr. — was arrested in 1948 for making book on horses out of a South Side garage with a crew that included reputed mob characters Frank "Skids" Caruso and Morris "Mutt" Caruso. Records don't indicate how that case was resolved.
Records also show that in 1946, Bills Sr. was in the car with another crew responsible for the robbery and sexual assault of a woman they met at a bar. Bills was indicted in connection with the case but charges were dropped. Also in the car that night was Fred "Peanuts" Roti, who would later became the longtime Chicago alderman for the 1st Ward.
Roti was long reputed to be the mob's representative in the City Council, and spent years in federal prison in the 1990s after convictions for racketeering and extortion.
Charles E. "Duckie" Bills — the elder Bills' brother and John Bills' uncle — was a bookmaker associated with the infamous 26th Street crew, records show. Duckie Bills was once shot and wounded by La Pietra after a fistfight, according to testimony in a federal court battle over mob influence at the Laborers' International Union.
La Pietra would later become one of the most feared mob bosses in Chicago, ruthlessly controlling South Side gambling operations until his conviction in 1986 in a scheme to skim profits from a Las Vegas casino. He was released from prison in 1997 and died two years later.
Duckie Bills' death in 1992 was noted in a City Hall resolution presented by then Ald. Patrick Huels, 11th Ward. The tribute noted his longtime membership in the Old Neighborhood Italian American Club, but the resolution excluded one name from Duckie's long list of family members — Duckie's own son Charles "Guy" Bills.
Guy Bills and his brother Sean — both first cousins of John Bills — were also longtime members of the 26th Street Crew, records show. But Guy Bills turned federal informant against the mob after he was arrested burglarizing a suburban jewelry store in 1986, and his testimony at the 1989 trial of reputed mob boss Alberto Tocco landed him in the federal witness protection program.
John Bills Sr. and his nephews Guy and Sean have all since died.
"Everybody has bad seeds in their family," Sanan said. "It doesn't make John a criminal or a bad person."
Longtime city worker
Like so many of his relatives before him, Bills made a career out of working for the city.
He started as a lamp maintenance worker in 1979 in the Bureau of Electricity in the Streets and Sanitation Department. He rose through various positions to become a midlevel manager there, and later at the Transportation Department and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
"I have said this many times to aldermen, friends, anyone who will listen, John Bills was the best administrator I ever worked for," said Ryan, who became friends with Bills while working for him at emergency management. "He was always ready to solve any problem I brought to him, and when everyone else was bobbing and weaving he was the one who was always ready to make a decision."
"He was always a great guy, very ready to help out whenever you needed him," said Bernie Hansen, the longtime 44th Ward alderman who retired in 2002. He said he met Bills during his time at City Hall and they stayed friends, with Bills stopping in to see the retired Hansen in Arizona.
John Bills' career at City Hall wasn't without its series of bumps, like the time in 2000 when Bills took it upon himself to support the campaign of then-Ald. Patrick Levar, 45th, against Dorothy Brown in her successful run for Cook County Circuit Court clerk. He made the mistake of not seeking Madigan's approval.
"Unbeknownst to John, I guess Madigan didn't think Levar had much of a chance, so there wasn't a lot of support," Ryan said. "Anyway, when Madigan found out that John was working for Levar he wasn't too happy and called him in. They had a bit of a falling out."
Bills, then an assistant commissioner in the electricity bureau, was exiled to a trailer in a South Side quarry.
"The next day, John was moved to the quarry and handed a tape measure," Ryan said, adding that Bills spent about a year measuring offices for renovations. "Eventually, they let him back in."
"He absolutely hated it," another friend said. "I remember he had to go down to (13th Ward Ald. Frank) Olivo's office with his tail between his legs begging to get back in good graces.
"Eventually, Madigan let him back in," the friend said. "For one thing, he raised a lot of money for Mike."
Red light investigation
Bills was an assistant transportation commissioner in 2002 when the idea of automated red light cameras took hold at the city; he sat on the selection committee that voted to give the business to Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. The small program grew into a major revenue source, generating more than $300 million for the city and more than $120 million for the company.
Bills was still overseeing the program when he retired in 2011 as a $138,492-per-year deputy managing commissioner and went to work for the Redflex-funded Traffic Safety Coalition, run by a Chicago political consultant with strong ties to former Mayor Richard Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
In late 2012, Tribune reporting about the cozy relationship between Bills and Redflex set off a series of investigations that cost Redflex its Chicago contract and led the company to dump its top executives and acknowledge the firm likely bribed Bills with lavish trips and massive payments funneled through a Bills friend set up as a Redflex consultant.
On Wednesday, federal authorities charged Bills with one count of bribery and accused him of hatching a scheme to steer the contract to Redflex almost as soon as he was approached by an official with the then-fledgling company.
Authorities allege Bills coached Redflex officials on how to win the business during clandestine meetings and worked to rig the selection process in their favor. In exchange, authorities said, he was plied with numerous vacation trips and cash payments they allege he spent on an Arizona condominium, a Mercedes convertible, a boat and other personal expenses.
Bills was released without posting bail money, and his attorney said authorities were using the threat of a 10-year prison sentence to force him to point fingers at others.
Ryan said his friend is not the kind of man who would take bribes.
"And now he's looking at losing his pension, at losing everything," he said. "I don't believe any of it."