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

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A school bus camera program with ties to the same plan that landed two Dallas area officials in prison has run into trouble with regulators in Maryland.

In Texas, former bus agency superintendent Rick Sorrells was sentenced this week to seven years in federal prison for taking bribes from officials for a company called Force Multiplier Solutions, in return for agreeing to use the company’s cameras in the agency’s school buses. The cameras’ purpose is to record drivers who fail to stop for buses loading or unloading, as required by law in all states.

Force Multiplier sold its technology to Bus Patrol, a Montreal-based company that took over a similar contract for use of its cameras in school buses in Montgomery County, Maryland, just north of Washington, D.C.

Now a state inspector general in Maryland is questioning the connections between Sorrells and school officials in that county. Bus Patrol is the target of that report.

The inspector general report cites a Texas Monitor story that reported on the continuing controversies over Dallas County Schools, the bus agency that eventually was shut down in the wake of the scandal. The Texas Monitor story delved into a lawsuit between Force Multiplier and the committee that took over for Dallas County Schools.

The contract between Dallas County Schools and Force Multiplier lost millions of dollars for the district in part due to a poorly structured contract between the two parties that put public money in jeopardy. Among the problems was a bribery scheme between Sorrells and Force Multiplier CEO Robert Leonard, who was sentenced in May to seven years in federal prison for paying bribes and kickbacks to promote his camera scheme.

In April, former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine was sentenced to 56 months in prison for taking bribes and kickbacks in exchange for his support of the program.

As part of that deal, motorists were ticketed, based on video evidence from the cameras, for passing school buses stopped to discharge students. Over a dozen school districts around Texas signed similar contracts with DCS/Force Multiplier to equip school buses with cameras to catch violators.

That same plan was pitched to Montgomery County schools, supported by statements from Sorrells as to its effectiveness, the Maryland report noted.

As the case against Sorrells and DCS unfolded in Texas, Montgomery County public schools and the Montgomery County Police Department were putting the bus camera plan in place there. Representatives from Montgomery County schools and police visited Dallas, where Sorrells promoted the plan, according to a Montgomery school district memo.

They had no idea that Sorrells and several others would be arrested on federal charges. But even when the indictments began in late 2017, with the cameras in place in Montgomery County, the Maryland parties continued to carry out the deal without questioning it.

“We … question whether an appropriate business case was presented supporting County involvement … and if a proper reassessment was made once serious issues involving the selected vendor came to be known,” the state report says.

The school bus camera deals provide for Bus Patrol to recoup its expenses through ticket revenue first; the school districts begin to get their cut only after that.

In Maryland, Bus Patrol’s off-the-top fee is $18 million. Because of that, the state inspector general report noted, “it remains unclear” whether Montgomery County schools will receive any citation money in the future.

Jean Souliere, CEO of Bus Patrol America, said most clients, including Montgomery County, will see revenue if the program is given enough time.

The average projected capital recovery time for Bus Patrol is two to three years, he said. After that, the fee from a $250 citation is divided among Bus Patrol, the school district and the law enforcement agency handling the office duties of collecting on a ticket. Bus Patrol takes around 70 percent of that ticket fee.

“I would expect the lion’s share of our clients will get to that point in the next 12 months,” Souliere, whose company began taking over Force Multiplier contracts in 2017, told The Texas Monitor.

He further distanced himself from Force Multiplier and any problems that linger from that episode.

“We have no links to the past,” Souliere said. ”We are so far removed from this.”

Motorists in Texas have complained since the indictments of receiving tickets that may or may not be valid. In one case, a collections notice was sent to a West Lake Hills woman on forged stationary, alleging she was on the hook for a driving infraction.

The bus camera deals in Texas included an understanding that school districts would not have to spend any up-front money to buy or install cameras.

Montgomery County school district chief Andrew Zuckerman, in a written response to the report, said an audit will be done to target the date when Bus Patrol will have recouped its investment and the revenue from fines will start being shared. He said the contract with Bus Patrol, overall, is a “well-defined agreement.”

Despite the state investigation, Souliere said he expects that the Montgomery County contract will go ahead.

“We have 1,378 buses in Maryland that will be fully deployed by the end of the month, the largest ‘smart bus’ deployment in the world,” he said.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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