Red-light camera operator SafeSpeed LLC claims a company owner and co-founder misspoke when he recently told reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC-7 that SafeSpeed was founded after another company official was involved in an automobile accident in 2007.

In fact, the accident involving SafeSpeed President Nikki M. Zollar took place in August 2011, four years after the red-light camera firm was founded.

Wednesday Journal obtained Chicago Police Department records for the accident, and a SafeSpeed spokeswoman confirmed this 2011 crash was the event referenced by company co-founder and COO Chris Lai during an interview in May with reporters detailing the growth of suburban red-light camera ticketing.

Sun-Times/ABC-7 reporting showed SafeSpeed operates the most lucrative cameras in the state, including cameras in River Forest, North Riverside and Berwyn (Forest Park uses a different company for its red-light cameras). Company cameras yielded more than $70 million in red-light camera tickets between 2014 and 2016, according to that reporting. Under the terms of its vendor contracts, SafeSpeed stood to reap almost $30 million from those citations.

SafeSpeed spokeswoman Yvonne Davila in emailed comments to Wednesday Journal did not explain how Lai, a company principal since its inception and a longtime business partner of Nikki Zollar, misidentified the chronology of SafeSpeed’s founding and the South Side accident involving Zollar and her mother-in-law.

At the time of the August 2011 crash, SafeSpeed was already operating in several suburbs, including Melrose Park and Berwyn, and had recently bid to operate red-light cameras in River Forest.

During his comments to the Sun-Times and ABC-7, Lai appeared to present the accident as an important catalyst for Zollar and her partners in entering the traffic safety business.

Prior to SafeSpeed’s formation in June 2007, three of the company’s owners, including Lai and Zollar, were partners in a business that handled janitorial contract work for the city of Chicago. The fourth partner, who was recently bankrupt at the time of SafeSpeed’s founding and controlled his stake through a separate Illinois corporation, had connections to a clout-heavy west suburban municipal lawyer.

Provided with details about the August 2011 accident, Davila sought to walk back Lai’s claims. 

“Mr. Lai misspoke,” she wrote, adding that SafeSpeed officials grew increasingly committed to intersection safety following Zollar’s crash in the South Side neighborhood where she lives.

“[T]he entire team at SafeSpeed feel extremely passionate about the mission of red-light cameras, which grew even stronger after Ms. Zollar experienced, firsthand, alongside her mother in law, the tragic accident that nearly killed them both due to someone’s negligence of running a red light,” Davila wrote.

Chicago Police Department records show Zollar was rear-ended while turning west onto 67th Street from southbound Lake Shore Drive on Aug. 26, 2011. The at-fault driver reportedly made an improper left-hand turn and struck Zollar’s Mercedes from behind as she made the turn. In his comments to the media, Lai claimed Zollar was T-boned.

Accident records show Zollar’s mother-in-law, who was 85 at the time of the accident, was transported to UIC hospital for unspecified injuries. Zollar refused medical attention at the scene. The at-fault driver was “taken to Jackson Park Hospital for minor injuries,” according to police records.

Zollar’s mother-in-law later sued the at-fault driver and won an undisclosed settlement, Cook County court records show.

Lai’s misstatements were made when he sat for a videotaped interview regarding his company’s role in suburban red-light camera ticketing. The Sun-Times and ABC-7, building on reporting earlier this year by the Forest Park Review, found suburban red-light camera revenues now far surpass Chicago’s and that SafeSpeed operates the most lucrative such cameras in the state. 

Eight of the top-10 suburban municipalities for red-light camera ticket revenues are SafeSpeed clients, according to Sun-Times and ABC-7 reporting. The company now reportedly operates in more than 20 suburbs.

As the Review reported earlier this year, SafeSpeed was founded in June 2007 by Zollar, Lai, Khaled “Cliff” Maani and a separate entity controlled by Khaled Maani’s son, Omar Maani. 

Zollar, Lai and Khaled Maani at the time were already partners in Chicago-based Triad Consulting Services Inc. The younger Maani three years earlier had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection while working for the Giglio and Del Galdo law firm of Melrose Park.  

An officer in that law firm, Michael Del Galdo, later became an influential adviser to Cicero Town President Larry Dominick and was performing legal work for Berwyn when the city hired SafeSpeed as a red-light camera vendor in 2009. Records show the Berwyn camera contract was among SafeSpeed’s earliest and established the firm on Harlem Avenue.

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