Ohio battle over traffic cameras heats up again

The FBI is now involved, investigating possible public corruption over camera vendor dealings in Columbus and Cincinnati

By Dan Sewell
Associated Press

CINCINNATI — The ongoing clash over traffic camera enforcement in Ohio isn't slowing down.

The FBI is now involved, investigating possible public corruption over camera vendor dealings in Columbus and Cincinnati. State lawmakers who saw last year's bill to sharply restrict camera use hit legal roadblocks are back with a measure penalizing cities for collecting photo citation fees. And just months after the state's highest court again upheld local governments' power to use camera enforcement, the justices are weighing another camera issue.

"There are so many ins and outs to this," said Cincinnati attorney Mike Allen, who has filed several lawsuits for drivers ticketed by camera systems for speeding or red-light violations. "It's just a bad idea all the way around."

Fallout hangs over the state's capital from the federal probe that resulted in a guilty plea this month by the former CEO of a camera vendor that has contracts with 10 Ohio cities. Fourth-term Democratic Mayor Michael Coleman and the party's mayoral nominee for November, Andrew Ginther, both have said they are providing information to investigators, while denying any wrongdoing. The federal investigation includes Cincinnati, although that city doesn't use cameras. There's been no indication that other Ohio cities are involved.

Allen, a former prosecutor whose firm won judgments against two Cincinnati-area villages over traffic cameras, said he's not surprised that graft allegations have surfaced.

"It's just another reason for citizens to hate speed cameras," Allen said.

Redflex Traffic Systems, a Phoenix-based subsidiary of the Australian company Redflex Holdings Ltd., says the investigation that resulted in its former CEO's guilty plea to a bribery conspiracy charge is a reflection of past, not current, practices. The camera company took "specific, strong steps" in the aftermath of an internal probe that found "substantial misconduct" by former chief executive Karen Finley in dealings with contracts in Chicago and Columbus, spokesman Tilden Katz said.

Outspoken camera critic state Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, expressed outrage at the Statehouse.

"It's about public officials taking money in return for doing favors for red-light camera companies so that their own taxpayers and motorists can be fleeced," Seitz said.

Judges in Lucas and Montgomery counties have granted orders this year to Toledo and Dayton, respectively, blocking a new Ohio law requiring that police officers be present when camera systems are being used. Those judges' rulings followed two Ohio Supreme Court decisions that upheld camera enforcement as within local "home rule" powers under the state constitution.

Local officials said the police officer requirement is a waste of police resources. Defenders of the camera enforcement say it increases traffic safety and frees up police for other crime fighting. Critics say it's mainly about raising revenues while trampling on drivers' rights.

Legislators have countered by including in their two-year budget plan a requirement that localities using cameras file reports of compliance with the law passed last year or report how much traffic fine money they have received — so the state can halt funds they would have received otherwise.

"A financial penalty directed only at cities for how they allocate safety resources in a manner that has saved lives and reduced serious injuries is just another violation of the cities' home rule rights," Katz, the Redflex spokesman, said of the measure.

Meanwhile, a decision is expected later this year on a Cleveland case that's been argued before the Ohio Supreme Court. It was brought by motorist Janine Lycan as a class-action lawsuit after she was cited in 2006 for speeding by traffic cameras in a vehicle she was leasing. She and the others contend the city's law didn't include them since they didn't own their vehicles; the city says they should have appealed their citations through the administrative hearing process used for camera tickets.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press

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