CHICAGO — Drivers caught speeding or rolling through stop signs in Cook County have a way to keep their driving record clean — and their car insurance from going up.

Just pay $40 and take a four-hour traffic-safety class. Strapped for time? Pay $60, and do the class online.

It’s a small price for drivers. But it adds up — to millions of dollars a year — for whoever runs traffic school.

For nearly two decades, that was Northwestern University, which ran the Cook County court system’s traffic school in partnership with the National Safety Council.

Then, two years ago, Northwestern decided to kick the safety council to the curb, run the program alone — and keep the profits for itself.

The safety council, whose headquarters is in Itasca, didn’t go quietly. It hired a high-powered lobbyist — John J. Cullerton, a lawyer who also happens to be president of the Illinois Senate. His job: To try to get the Cook County Board to take traffic school away from Northwestern when its contract expired last spring and turn the operation over to the council.

But Northwestern had its own clout: Mary Daley Briatta. She’s a cousin of Mayor Daley and his brother John Daley, a member of the Cook County Board, which decides who gets to run the county’s traffic school. She’s also John Daley’s sister-in-law.

Briatta used to work for the county, as the traffic division director for Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans. In that job, she oversaw Northwestern’s traffic-school contract for 18 years.

She retired from her county job in December 2005, taking a pension. Some time after that, she turned up at Northwestern, where she has a consulting contract with its Center for Public Safety, which runs traffic school.

Low offer wasn’t enough

So, when the safety council and Northwestern faced off last summer for the prize of the traffic-school contract, it was, in a sense, the Daley family vs. Cullerton.

The low bidder? The safety council, a not-for-profit organization with a national profile. It promised to run traffic school for $20 million. That was a whopping $8 million less than Northwestern’s offer.

And the safety council said it also would cut the price drivers would have to pay to take the classes.

But Northwestern won anyway and got to hold on to traffic school.

That was after Northwestern — prompted by questions from the chief judge’s staff — found a way to slash its original bid by more than $11 million and undercut the safety council.

In November, the Cook County Board handed Northwestern a new, five-year deal. Among those voting for Northwestern: John Daley.

How did the university find a way to underprice the National Safety Council? It agreed to give up $6 million in profits, which it had listed as overhead in its bid — money it had been setting aside in the past to cover a share of a wide range of expenses that had nothing to do with traffic school, such as running the university library.

“I never knew this contract was so lucrative,” says Cook County Board member Larry Suffredin.

Bad and costly breakup

Northwestern has been operating Cook County’s traffic school since October 1988, offering defensive-driving classes to around 100,000 errant drivers a year in a partnership with the safety council, which provided the course materials, trained the instructors and eventually developed the online version of the course.

Records show that, between July 2002 and May 2008, Northwestern paid the safety council a total of nearly $3.2 million.

But when their contract ran out in June 2008, Northwestern didn’t renew it.

That prompted the safety council to sue. It had Cullerton file suit against Northwestern in Cook County court, accusing the university of using “similar courses and materials” to those the council had provided, which it maintained was an infringement of the organization’s “intellectual property rights” and violated their no-compete clause.

“Northwestern’s expertise and experience in the defensive-driving course field is almost entirely based upon its work in administering NSC Defensive Driving Courses,” the safety council said in the lawsuit.

Both Northwestern and the National Safety Council declined interview requests about the deal. So did Cullerton — though records show the safety council paid him and his law firm $514,105 as of last June for work including the fight over the traffic school.

Last March, the partners-turned-antagonists reached an undisclosed, out-of-court settlement, as Northwestern’s contract with the county was running out.

Six weeks later, Cook County officials asked for new proposals to run traffic school. They got two — one from Northwestern, the other from the safety council.

Northwestern offered to keep running traffic school for 42 percent more than what the safety council said it would charge bad drivers — who cover the cost of the program, paying the county, which, in turn, gives the money to Northwestern.

The university said it would charge $28.6 million to run the program for five years. The safety council said it could do the same job for $20.1 million by charging lower fees and collecting a smaller profit.

Then, Northwestern officials met with the chief judge’s staff — and came back with an offer to slash the cost of its proposal by more than $11 million. That made its bid 14 percent lower than the safety council’s offer.

It did that by cutting its 30 percent profit margin while also cutting class fees — the cost of the basic, four-hour class would drop from $40 to $27, while the online course would drop from $60 to $27.

The safety council was given a chance to cut the price it was asking. But it wouldn’t budge.

So, on Nov. 4, the Cook County Board awarded the new, five-year deal to Northwestern.

The contract hasn’t been finalized yet. But it will result in lower fees for those who get traffic tickets and go to traffic school.

“For the first time ever, persons opting for the Traffic Safety Program will see a substantial decrease in course fees,” Evans’ executive officer James R. Anderson said in a seven-page letter responding to reporters’ questions. “In an era of ever-increasing government fees, this result is unprecedented.”

‘Never talked to anyone’

Anderson said Briatta’s jobs with Northwestern and, previously, the chief judge’s office played no role in deciding who got the lucrative deal.

And he said the judge’s staff never told either the university or the safety council details of the other’s proposals.

“To the best of my knowledge, at no time in this process did anyone in the office of the chief judge share either vendor’s proposed fee structure with the other vendor,” Anderson said.

He said the chief judge’s office did get “a number of telephone calls from Ms. Briatta throughout 2008 and early 2009 pertaining to Traffic Safety Program operational matters unrelated to the [request for proposals].

She also inquired about the office of the chief judge’s plans to continue Northwestern’s contractual relationship with Cook County.

“Once the RFP was issued, the office of the chief judge … had no contact whatsoever with Ms. Briatta concerning the RFP process,” Anderson said. “To avoid any impropriety or even the appearance of impropriety, the office of the chief judge staff advised Ms. Briatta and Northwestern to limit all communications about the new contract.

“Ms. Briatta played no role whatsoever in the decision by the office of the chief judge to recommend to Cook County that Northwestern be retained to operate the Traffic Safety Program.”

In an interview, John Daley said Northwestern held on to traffic school because of its experience, and not because of his cousin Mary Daley Briatta.

“I don’t even know if she’s involved in this,” Daley said. “This came from Tim Evans. I never talked to anyone in Evans’ office on this at all. I would never do that.”

>> Read the partner story in the Chicago Sun-Times.