In a new report, the county’s inspector general is questioning an agreement between Montgomery County Public Schools and a company tasked with installing cameras on school buses.
Montgomery County Inspector General Edward Blansitt challenges the integrity of the agreement, and the school district’s commitment to ensuring its effectiveness, after the camera company’s CEO and other affiliates were convicted of taking and offering bribes associated with the program.
In his report, Blansitt wrote that there is no indication any county or MCPS employee violated any rules or laws or “had any inappropriate relationship with the vendor.” But he wrote that “it is not apparent that any significant due diligence process took place concerning information supplied by the vendor even after significant adverse information came to light.”
“However, both [Montgomery County police] and MCPS appear to remain reluctant to re-assess the … contract and continue to rely on vendor supplied information to justify the business case and public safety value of the program,” Blansitt wrote.
In 2016, MCPS and the county police department entered a contract with Force Multiplier Solutions to install the safety cameras on each of its 1,300 buses. The cameras capture video of and issue tickets to motorists who pass a stopped bus with its stop-arm extended and flashing lights activated.
Nearly all of the buses are now outfitted. More than 54,000 tickets had been issued through the end of the 2018-19 school year.
The contract said Force Multiplier would install the cameras at no cost to MCPS, but would keep the fine money generated from violations until the company recovered the cost of installing the cameras, estimated to be about $18 million. Blansitt wrote that “it remains unclear whether [Montgomery County Government] or MCPS will receive any citation revenue in the future.”
In 2018, Force Multiplier CEO Robert Leonard, Dallas County Schools Superintendent Rick Sorells and Dallas Mayor Dwaine Caraway all pleaded guilty to crimes involving bribes and kickbacks to public officials in exchange for “favorable actions furthering [Force Multiplier’s] local business interests,” according to Blansitt’s report.
Leonard was sentenced in May to seven years in prison for what federal prosecutors described as “the largest domestic public corruption case in history.” Sorells was sentenced Wednesday to seven years in prison for taking $3 million in bribes from the company.
When the investigation into Force Multiplier unfolded in 2017, MCPS signed an amended contract delegating the company’s duties to a company named BusPatrol America. Two years remain in the existing contract.
The new contract was considered a “bridge contract” using an existing agreement between the company and the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, public school system. That school system receives 20% of ticket revenue. Ten percent goes to the sheriff’s department and the rest to the bus camera company.
Montgomery County has no such agreement. Under the MCPS contract, the entirety of the $250 fine goes to BusPatrol.
In a response to Blansitt’s report, MCPS Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman wrote that there was no reasonable way to outfit the district’s buses in the same time frame without structuring the contract this way.
BusPatrol is not a completely separate company from Force Multiplier, as it purchased Force Multiplier’s infrastructure. BusPatrol operates at the same address and with the same phone number and is run by the former president of Force Multiplier.
In his report, Blansitt questions how BusPatrol could take over the MCPS contract with Force Multiplier because BusPatrol’s CEO said it bought only the company’s assets, but not its contracts or liabilities.
When asked about the concern, MCPS provided a letter signed by a Candian attorney in 2017 that “allegedly verifies … that BusPatrol did purchase” Force Multiplier contracts, Blansitt wrote.
“This letter appears to be designed to give the impression that it is from independent legal counsel when it is nothing more than a self-serving verification from BusPatrol,” Blansitt’s report says.
Additionally, Blansitt wrote that initial presentations about the program indicated there would be no cost to the county to implement it. But the county was tasked with funding “several” new staff positions to “review citations under the program.”
Blansitt estimated Montgomery County has spent more than $750,000 from its operating budget to support the program.
The inspector general says data does not show the cameras have “any measurable impact on or correlation with improvements in pedestrian or traffic safety or collision reduction.”
In his response, Zuckerman wrote that Blansitt’s report “disregarded the extensive due diligence conducted by MCPS and MCPD in searching for a cost-effective solution to enhance and expand” the bus camera program.
Zuckerman also argued that MCPS, county officials and BusPatrol are conducting an audit to identify a specific date by which “revenue sharing” from ticket fines can begin.
“From the MCPS perspective, the School Bus Camera Safety Enforcement Program is critical to pedestrian safety and, equally important, to MCPS transportation operations. In addition to the clear benefits to traffic enforcement — in which only 5.8% of all citations issued were repeat offenders — the camera monitoring capabilities and the ability to equip the entire bus fleet are critical to ensure student safety while riding MCPS buses,” Zuckerman wrote. “In a notable oversight, your report entirely overlooks these benefits to student safety, which we previously have highlighted in the information that we provided to you and your staff.”
Montgomery County Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine provided a written response to Blansitt’s report, generally concurring with recommendations to review existing contracts and information after learning of adverse information about a vendor. All financial transactions should be subjected to review, he wrote
Zuckerman wrote that MCPS agrees the county should “exercise good stewardship” of taxpayer funds and “that is why MCPS, in close collaboration with” the county police department, entered a “well-defined agreement” for the program.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org