Members of the Dallas City Council on Wednesday were slapped in the face with an agreement five years ago to adopt a ‘stop arm’ program that is part of a federal investigation into the Dallas County Schools.
A “stop arm” refers to the stop sign that protrudes from halted school buses. Motorists who continue to pass the bus when the arm is extended can be fined, and their actions are captured by a camera onboard each bus.
“May 2015 — Added 25 years to extend Stop Arm [interlocal agreement] term to 2040,” blared a handout given to the council members, reminding them that, at one point, the stop arm technology was to provide both safety and revenue, much akin to the red light camera programs that are being challenged across the state.
Drivers who fail to stop at the drop of the sign on the bus are caught on camera and mailed a citation.
Instead of safety and revenue, the program is tainted with allegations of bribery on the part of the contractor, Plano-based Force Multiplier Solutions. An independent, investigative audit alleges former DCS officials benefitted from outsized campaign funds from Multiplier.
Based on projections by the auditing team, “all members of the DCS Board who received a share of these campaign contributions… may be exposed to allegations of a conspiracy,” the audit found.
A look at the proceedings that kept the program alive, revived on Wednesday, is a glance at a fleeting opportunity to stem alleged public corruption.
The step arm program was extended in May 2015 through 2040, a 25-year leap of faith that was at first to be 47 years until 2062.
An amendment from another council member took the end date to 2040.
The move to extend at the 2015 meeting was heatedly discussed, a simple consent agenda item that heard council members in favor praise the program, with one particularly dissenting voice who sought to delay the continuation of stop cameras.
“I was getting complaints from people who were getting tickets from these bus cameras,” Dallas City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates said in an interview.
Even before things went south, she felt something was wrong with the stop arm program.
“There were red flags about the whole process and yet everyone was trying to push it through very quickly.”
During the council’s discussion Gates told her colleagues that she had heard complaints from constituents about the lack of effectiveness of the technology.
“These cases were also being adjudicated with no one being convicted,” Gates said.
The cost to put the camera on each bus was $10,000, Rick Sorrels, then superintendent of DCS, told the council during the hearing. They were put on all 1,600 of the buses for a total outlay of $16 million.
“Have we recovered the cost, through fines, to pay for that yet?” Council Member Tennell Atkins asked Sorrels. It had been three years since the program began.
“We have not,” Sorrels said.
But, the two agreed, immediate approval of the program was necessary because there were rumblings in Austin that pending legislation would end such stop arm programs. If approved before June 1, the deal would be grandfathered in.
“It puts the whole program at risk to delay it,” Sorrels said.
Gates moved to delay the vote to give everyone more time to consider the ramifications of a 25-year deal on a program that had yet to make money.
Her motion failed.
Within three years, Sorrels, who stepped down last year, would be found to have spent time beginning in 2014 partying in New Orleans in a French Quarter apartment adjacent to a dwelling leased by Robert Leonard, CEO of Multiplier.
The stop arm program came as part of a deal for the city — approve it and responsibility for the school crossing guards — an expensive proposition — would also be moved to the Dallas County Schools.
The city appeared to be acting as a cog in the machine that was Dallas County Schools. In 2012, it turned over its crossing guard program to the DCS, which provided bus service to nine school districts in the Metroplex.
At the same time, the idea of the stop bus program was floated as a way to produce revenue through tickets to violators, as the DCS was losing money. The program would provide $11 million in its first year, DCS leaders promised.
To make the program go, the DCS procured Force Multiplier, a relatively new company that sold the technology. Over the next several years, the DCS purchased cameras and other gear from the company, sometimes an excessive amount that had to be stored, unused.
As the agency’s coffers began to dwindle from the stop camera spend and other pressures, DCS attempted to sell the technology to other districts in exchange for a cut of the ticket revenue, a venture that also failed to produce results.
Adroit, probing coverage from the local NBC outlet in Dallas made public many of the agency’s failings. It led to legislative action that pushed the future of the DCS before voters. In November, those voters elected to dissolve Dallas County Schools.
In December, the feds announced money laundering charges against Louisiana real estate dealer Slater Washburn Swartwood, Sr.
While not naming names other than the defendant, the federal complaint alleges Swartwood worked for a Texas company that “sold cameras and related services for school buses.” It claims that company “entered into various contracts and a licensing agreement with a Texas state agency acting through its superintendent… Under these contracts and the licensing agreement, the state agency purchased millions of dollars of camera equipment…”
The feds contend over $3 million was funneled, with the help of Swartwood, to the superintendent of the state agency, “in exchange for favorable action, including [the superintendent’s] decision to enter into contracts and licensing agreements on behalf of the state agency and to purchase school bus camera equipment.”
Swartwood’s attorney, Max Stern, did not return a call or email.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].