Records, interviews: Dallas Co Schools deceptive in school bus camera program

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Dallas County Schools

Interviews and records show Dallas County Schools was deceptive from the start of a venture with local technology company, Force Multiple Solutions, misrepresenting the number of participants in a school bus camera program in order to convince school districts to sign on.

The district issued a press release in April 2014 that claimed at least 15 districts in Texas were part of a pilot program using the technology, which snaps a picture of motorists who pass stopped school buses in violation of state law.

Carroll ISD briefly checked the technology out “for a very short period of time,” Julie Thannum, a district spokeswoman said in an email.

“Quite a while later we were notified about the 2014 presser claiming we were one of their clients,” she wrote. “I contacted Dallas County Schools in writing and requested that they immediately remove Carroll ISD from their promotional materials because it misrepresented us as clients/customers…They had placed other school districts in the press release that weren’t actually clients or using the technology either…”

The technology was marketed as both a safety feature and a moneymaker for the school districts that used it by giving them a share of the $300 traffic fine levied on offenders.

Dallas County Schools, or DCS, has for decades provided bus service to Dallas area school districts. In 2012, it formed a company called Texserve and went into business promoting the stop arm camera around the state. In doing so, it purchased millions of dollars of cameras and other equipment with taxpayer money.

Voters in November chose to dissolve DCS amidst reports of questionable business dealings, including spending connected to the stop-arm camera program, which plunged DCS into debt of more than $100 million.

“It was so shady,” said Dallas City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, referring to the bus camera operation at DCS. “The voters did the right thing.”

Last month, a federal complaint alleged that a “Texas state agency,” widely reported to be DCS, had engaged in criminal activity in connection with a school bus camera program.

In misrepresenting interest in the program from the start, DCS showed that it was willing to bend the truth on the program, referred to by the marketing-friendly name of BusGuard.

At Round Rock ISD, also listed in the press release, “we had not used this in 2014,” said former Round Rock ISD spokesman Corey Ryan, who came to the district the same month as the misleading press release was issued.

“I have spoken with our Transportation Director as well as reviewed archived contracts and we do not have anything related to Force Multiplier Solutions or BusGuard,” Kristin Snively, a spokeswoman for Grapevine-Colleyville ISD said in an email.

The district was also mentioned in the press release as a participant.

Several districts did enter into agreements though, and feel the technology has worked.

San Marcos CISD signed a five-year deal to use the cameras in 2013, “and the cameras are still in place,” district spokesman Andrew Fernandez said.  The contract expires in July.

Judson ISD, outside of San Antonio, also signed a five-year deal with DCS in 2013 that ends in June, and it was “pretty effective,” a district spokesman said. But the district is now severing its contract in light of the demise of DCS and Force Multiplier.

Some districts didn’t know of the mounting evidence that the stop arm camera deal was unraveling at the top.

Eanes ISD in Austin signed onto a deal with BusGuard in January 2016 as the camera program was hemorrhaging money at DCS and despite stories questioning the dubious finances and accuracy of the stop arm program.

One story noted that 68 percent of tickets issued were dismissed due to a flaw in the technology.

The Texserve/Force Multiple Solutions/BusGuard team aggressively courted Eanes, increasing the percentage the local municipality and Eanes ISD got from a ticket from 12.5 percent to 20 percent.  They weren’t honest about their situation; the program had yet to make money.

“When we first began talking to BusGuard, it was represented to us the program was having success,” district spokeswoman Claudia McWhorter said in an email.

The agreement stated that Eanes would start to see money in September 2017.

By then, DCS was basically insolvent.

“Once we did not receive that initial payment, we began contacting BusGuard and we were told they were looking for a buyer,” McWhorter said.

Even as Texserve and Force Multiplier made the rounds of school districts, promising great things, there was something too good to be true about the program.

“All this equipment they just gave us,” said Steve Linscomb, a spokesman for Judson ISD. “You know it cost a boatload of money. It made you wonder how in the world it was working.”

It wasn’t. The accumulating debt aroused suspicion in the local media and among federal investigators.

The federal complaint issued in December includes allegations of bribery and kickbacks and claims that a Texas company that “sold cameras and related services for school buses…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 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.”

The superintendent of DCS was Rick Sorrells.

The complaint included money laundering charges against Louisiana real estate dealer Slater Washburn Swartwood, Sr., a former partner of Leonard’s in the school bus technology. Swartwood has pleaded guilty in the case. His lawyer, Boston attorney Max Stern, did not respond to emails or a call.

The web sites of Force Multiple Solutions, which were renewed in May, were shuttered last week.

An attorney representing Robert Leonard, CEO of Force Multiplier, said last week that he expects his client will be indicted, but the big fish are more alluring to the feds.

“Any public official they think is complicit in a kickback scheme, these are the people they are most interested in,” said Chris Lewis, Leonard’s attorney.

Lewis has talked to federal agents on two occasions since they raided his client’s Louisiana home and his downtown Dallas office in June.  The most recent visit was in August.

While the conversations with the agents have involved prominent public officials including former DCS Board President Larry Duncan and former DCS Superintendent Sorrells, Lewis is sure an indictment of his client is forthcoming.

He said his client is not guilty of any crimes; his biggest failure was licensing the camera technology to Dallas County Schools.

“The program is a moneymaker if it’s done right,” Lewis said. “The problem came when Sorrells came along and wanted to license the technology and provide it to other school districts. They did it the way Sorrells wanted to do it.”

Sorrells retired in March and received his salary of $206,000 through the end of the year.

His attorney, Cynthia Barbare, declined to discuss the case.

Duncan resigned from the board in October. His attorney, Barry Sorrels, no relation to Rick Sorrells, said in an email “I am not, currently, discussing the investigation.”

 

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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