Monday, August 19, 2019

Montgomery County OIG Raises Concerns About School Bus Cameras

The Montgomery County Maryland Office of Inspector General has raised questions about the contract which placed automated ticketing systems on school buses, and questioned the system's effectiveness as a safety measure.

In a report released on July 28, 2019 Inspector General Edward Blasitt III noted that the deal was made between the Montgomery County Public School System and Force Multiplier Solutions to install stop arm cameras on MCPS school buses.

In August of 2018, the OIG learned a local news reporter asked the Montgomery County Government (MCG) about possible contractual connections between MCG and Force Multiplier Solutions, Inc. (FMS). These inquiries were based on reports about the conviction of the FMS Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of federal crimes involving fraud and bribery of public officials in Texas regarding the operation of a school bus safety camera program. This company and its successor have operated the same program in Montgomery County (County). 
In 2018 the CEO of FMS (Robert Leonard), a non-FMS business associate, the Dallas County Schools Superintendent (Rick Sorrells), and the Mayor Pro Tem of Dallas (Dwaine Caraway) all pleaded guilty to crimes involving bribes and kick-backs paid to public officials in Dallas in exchange for favorable actions furthering FMS’ local business interests. These interests mainly involved the implementation and operation of a School Bus Stop Light Camera enforcement program. Mr. Leonard was sentenced in May of 2019 to serve seven years in prison for what federal prosecutors described as “the largest domestic public corruption case in history"

The report had two major findings about the contract
1. The business case for this program was built around the desired use of a predetermined vendor rather than an objective analysis to design an effective and economical method to achieve an identified outcome.


2. County officials relied, at least in part, on information provided by a criminal conspirator in vetting FMS and this program, and they continued to rely on vendor (FMS/BusPatrol) supplied information when considering the future of the program.

The report provided a background for the concerns about the contract:
"In October 2017, MCPS signed an amended contract and MOU with MCPD, acknowledging the assignment of the FMS contract to what was described as a separate company named BusPatrol America LLC," 
However it was apparent that the new company was run by the same people as FMS and was a different company in name only.

"While BusPatrol and FMS may technically be different corporate entities, they remain at the same address, with the same telephone number, and using the same equipment on the same contracts," 
"The president of FMS is now the president of BusPatrol and is the same person who introduced a criminal conspirator to county and MCPS employees. Furthermore, it was also discovered that the current CEO of BusPatrol is listed in Canadian legal documents as being a co-director of Force Multiplier Solutions Canada (which filed a corporate name change to become BusPatrol Canada)... Given the continuity of key people, history of corporate name changes and the pattern of misinformation provided, a prudent response of healthy skepticism appears appropriate before transferring millions of dollars from the drivers of Montgomery County to this company." 
The Inspector General report also noted that MCPS had yet to receive any revenue from the camera systems from BusPatrol even though the Vendor has collected $10million worth of ticket revenues from the system.  Furthermore, it was noted that the contract had been awarded without going through any sort of competitive bidding process normally required for any local government contract.
"Although we have not undertaken a forensic accounting review of the MCPS program, it appears to be structured much like the Dallas County School District program which ultimately led to the bankruptcy of the school district,"
"Much like the situation in Dallas County, Montgomery County appears to potentially bear the financial burden of vendor failure." 
The Montgomery Parents Coalition website has noted that the man who originally sold MCPS on the contract, Rick Sorrells, has been sentenced to 7 years in Federal Prison for his role in the Dallas Bribery scandal.  The Dallas scandal was so severe, that in addition to the criminal charges it led to the dissolution of the School board, and the dissolution committee has sought millions of dollars in damages from Force Multiplier Solutions and their former officers (see court documents).

The report also noted that while the stated reason for the system was to improve safety for children boarding school buses by reducing the rate of vehicles passing school buses, no safety improvement attributable to the system could be identified.  In fact, the report noted the incredible rarity of such accidents to begin with: "We contacted both MCPD and the Maryland State Police and requested data on school bus stop light violations resulting in pedestrian collisions in Montgomery County; neither agency could locate any record of such a collision in Montgomery County for at least the past eight years,"  The report noted that there had not been any reduction in violation rates, stating that “Data supplied by MCPS indicates that during the term of this contract, violation rates have remained relatively steady and in one year slightly increased. “

The fact that there has been no safety improvement is not surprising to those of us who were aware that data provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proved that serious accidents involving vehicles passing school buses are exceedingly rare.  In fact traffic fatalities involving such violations are only 1/3rd as common as fatalities involving pedestrians struck by school buses (which are also very rare).  Pedestrians struck during school transportation accidents from ALL causes combined account for only 0.02% of overall traffic fatalities in the US, according to NHTSA data, and the total number is a rate lower than the number of people killed by bee stings  every year.  Yet this has not stopped local governments from ignoring ALL other considerations about the use of these systems in the name of safety -- even making deals with criminals -- despite the fact that there is absolutely no data proving that school bus cameras have reduced accidents by even a small amount.

The OIG report also questioned whether the system might violate Maryland's laws regarding privacy because it had the potential to record people's conversations inside the bus without consent, without a warrant or an approved law enforcement purpose:

"According to the FMS/MCPS contract, and advertising literature from FMS, some of the interior cameras installed have audio recording and remote audio monitoring capabilities. We are aware that Maryland law has significant restrictions on monitoring and recording private oral communications absent consent of both parties.  We have concerns regarding the applicability of Maryland State law to a private company monitoring and collecting audio recordings for MCPS, which are not directly related to a law enforcement investigation. It appears that in most cases the surreptitious monitoring and recording of private communications, when allowed, is restricted to law enforcement related investigations and activities, absent consent of the parties. "

Additional Coverage: Maryland: Government Watchdog Warns Of School Bus Camera Impropriety

Parents Coalition: Man Who Met with MCPS and MoCo Police to Sell Them on Bus Camera Scheme Sentenced to 7 Years in Federal Prison

Parents Coalition: Montgomery County Council's 8 minute 7 second Discussion of IG 30 Page Report on School Bus Camera Scheme

Bethesda Magazine: Montgomery County Inspector General Questions Integrity of MCPS Bus Camera Contract

Texas Monitor: Maryland officials skeptical about bus camera program with ties to Dallas debacle

WTOP: Concerns raised about deal that put cameras in Montgomery Co. school buses County Watchdog Concerned About School Bus Camera Agreement