Friday, December 5, 2014

Baltimore Inspector General: City Official Tried To Inappropriately Influence Camera Contract Award

A report by the Baltimore City Office of Inspector General (OIG) accused a former high ranking city official of inappropriately trying to influence the award of a speed camera contract in factor for incumbent Xerox State and Local Solutions.  The report also concluded that some city agencies and the city's speed camera vendor did not fully cooperate with the OIG's investigation.

The Baltimore Sun writes:
In a report released Thursday, Inspector General Robert H. Pearre Jr. wrote that Alexander M. Sanchez attempted to help Xerox State & Local Solutions keep a contract to run the city's speed camera system, even though procurement staff said another company had won the bidding process.
That company, Brekford Corp., ultimately was awarded the contract.
But the inspector general faulted Sanchez's efforts, saying the mayoral aide "knowingly used the influence of his office to benefit the best interests of Xerox contrary to the interests of the city and taxpayers." Pearre did not speculate in the report why Sanchez supported Xerox.

The city's speed camera program was run by Xerox corporation for several years, until the contract was ended and the program was briefly run by Brekford Corporation in the beginning of 2013.  The program was shut down amid revelations that erroneous citations had been systematically issued under Xerox's tenure, and that some errors had continued after Brekford took over.  A report by Xerox corporation in December 2012 admitted that tickets issued some cameras had error rates of over 5% (one ticket out of every 20) due to a phenomenon called "radar effects".  An audit which the city later conducted revealed that errors may have been much more widespread, finding based on a sample of citations issued by all cameras had overall error rates of around 10% (ie, one ticket out of every 10 was due to an error).

The city had attempted to keep the audit secret, but it was leaked to the press in January 2014.  The city then tried to discredit the audit, claiming that the contractor who conducted it was "unqualified", but the OIG report stated that the contractor who conducted the audit(URS) was qualified to conduct such an audit.

The OIG report discussed the radar effects:
The City became concerned about the high volume of erroneous citations that were issued to motorists. Xerox contended that several citations issued erroneously throughout the ATVES program were a result of what the radar industry refers to as “known radar effects.” Known radar effects occur when environmental factors such as vehicle size, vehicle shape, equipment placement, number of vehicles, or the angle at which the radar is transmitted and received cause the radar equipment to present an inaccurate reading.  
One example of known radar effects involved large flat-backed trucks being cited for unreasonably high speeds. It was revealed that the large flat backs of these trucks combined with the angle at which certain speed enforcement units were positioned caused the equipment to register the vehicle as traveling at a speed much greater than its actual speed. Because oversized vehicles require a significantly greater stopping distance, which increases as the speed of the vehicle increases, the OIG has concerns about the effectiveness of an enforcement system that is unable to reliably determine if oversized vehicles are driving at speeds considerably above the posted limit within school zones. 
Another example involved citations issued to vehicles stopped at intersections. It was revealed that multiple vehicles and cross traffic were interfering with the enforcement equipment and causing erroneous speed readings. Again the OIG has concerns about the effectiveness of an enforcement system that is placed in a location where environmental factors, such as cross-traffic, would continually interfere with accurate enforcement. 

This seems to affirm that the problems were NOT due to "uncalibrated" equipment.  Documents previously obtained by the Maryland Drivers Alliance showed that the error-producing cameras "passed" all their automated calibration checks (which are treated as proof of motorist's guilt in court), even on the very same day a camera issued a speeding ticket to a completely stationary vehicle.

The report noted other types of errors as well, attributed to lack of "minimal quality control measures":
1. Inaccurate time stamps on citations2. Inaccurate location information (wrong street, wrong direction)3. Blurred/indistinguishable images on citations4. Duplicate images on citations5. Citations below the 12mph threshold
The report indicated that some who received erroneous citations may have simply paid them "In many instances, paying $40 for an erroneous citation was more cost effective than taking time off from work, if leave options were even available" stated the OIG.

The OIG report also criticized the city's use of a "Bounty System" contract.  "This payment structure, known familiarly as a bounty system, creates an opportunity for abuse of the program," stated the report. "The very nature of the bounty system creates the incentive for vendors to increase the number of citations issued to increase revenue. This incentive to increase citation volume has the potential for emphasizing revenue demands at the expense of quality control efforts."

Somme jurisdictions, such as Montgomery County and College Park, adamantly opposed changes to state law to end "bounty system" contracts... with Montgomery County officials making the questionable assertion that bounty system contract resulted in lower error rates.  The original state law, passed in 2006, contained language intended to ban such arrangements, but Montgomery County created a legal loophole which allowed them to pay their contractor on a per ticket basis .  To this day,most jurisdictions in the state STILL pay their speed camera contractors based on ticket volume.

The OIG report did cite some positive aspects of the city's program however.  In particular, the report noted that the city's speed cameras allowed for verification of speed after the fact, whereas many jurisdictions have adamantly resited making this possible:
All citations issued by automated traffic enforcement systems are required to have two time-stamped images. Several jurisdictions issue citations with timestamps that show only whole seconds or tenths of a second. The City’s ATVES program issued citations with timestamps that show the time of the violation to the hundredth of a second. This additional information allowed for motorists who received citations from the City to re-calculate the speed indicated on the citation. The OIG believes that by including this information on the citation, DOT promoted the integrity of the ATVES program and created additional transparency and accountability

In particular, Montgomery County and the Maryland SHA rounds off timestamps to the second on most of their citations, and in the previous two years they expended substantial taxpayer resources lobbying against legislative changes which would have required accurate timestamps that could have made proving errors by their cameras possible.  Thus if  errors were to take place in those programs, motorists have no means to prove this, nor would there be any audit trail that could be used to investigate any alleged errors in Montgomery County or the SHA's programs, and a report such as the one by the Baltimore OIG or the Audit which concluded there had been errors could never happen if systematic errors were to occur.

The report furthermore noted that they had trouble obtaining information to conduct their investigation, even from some city agencies.  The report stated that:

  • The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) did not respond to the OIG’s initial requests for interviews. Only after the Inspector General met with the Police Commissioner did BPD respond in writing.  Furthermore, BPD’s initial delayed response was incomplete.
  • DOT did not provide the majority of the requested documentation until October 2014 (seven months after the OIG’s initial request). Furthermore, the documentation provided was often in complete and/or unreliable.
  • Brekford Corporation (Brekford) failed to respond or comply with OIG requests for documents and interviews.
  • Xerox State and Local Solutions (Xerox) did not fully comply with the OIG’s requests for documents and did not make appropriate staff available for interviews within the requested time frame

The report further stated that "The difficulty the OIG experienced in obtaining required documentation, reliable data, and access to key personnel for interviews from vendors and city agencies unfortunately resulted in important questions about the ATVES [traffic camera] program remaining unanswered"

Additional Information:
Complete OIG Report Baltimore, Maryland Inspector General Blasts Lack Of Camera Oversight
Baltimore Sun: Ex-mayoral aide accused of trying to help firm get camera contract
Baltimore Sun: Speed camera lobbyist objects to inspector general's report
WBALTV: IG report adds new questions about city's speed camera program Mayor’s ex-chief of staff accused of improper relationship with City Hall lobbyist
WBFF: Report on Baltimore's Speed Camera Program Confirms Problems