Officials still claim speed and other cameras are all about public safety as entities rake in millions of dollars. But bribery schemes in this growing, lucrative market are not as uncommon as many think.

Larry Duncan looks more like a computer programming nerd than a political boss embroiled in a bribery scandal.

Turns out you can be both in 2019. Who knew?

Duncan’s political roots extend decades, from a leader of the Dallas Homeowners League and a grassroots campaign to advocate for a new system of electing City Council members. He is a Vietnam War vet, Eagle Scout, four-time Dallas City Council member, former Dallas school board president, and a computer systems analyst.

When I covered some contentious meetings in the late 1980s in which Duncan and others fought against the entrenched, racist, much better-funded Dallas political establishment for a fairer election system, he impressed me as someone with quiet vigor and integrity. But even that type can be bought in the political game. In 1989, I would have been surprised to learn of Duncan’s involvement in a bribery scam. But I’m not in 2019.

Between 2012 and 2016, Duncan took more than $230,000 in campaign contributions from executives of Force Multiplier Solutions and their family members, the latter of which is generally done as a ploy to disguise how much business execs give politicians. Duncan used his influence, which included being board chairman for the school district’s bus entity, to grease the wheels behind the scenes to ensure that millions of dollars in school bus stop-arm camera contracts went to Force Multiplier, according to court documents.

Duncan wasn’t a mastermind of the scheme that reportedly cost the school system $125 million. But he played a major role, according to a lawsuit filed by the committee combing through the wreckage of what once was the Dallas school bus agency. Former Force Multiplier CEO Robert Leonard Jr. funneled bribes and illegal donations to former school Superintendent Rick Sorrells and former Dallas Council member Dwaine Caraway, all of whom pleaded guilty to various charges. Leonard received a seven-year prison sentence, Caraway almost five years, and Sorrells awaits sentencing. Duncan got six months of home confinement and three years probation.

The original contract between Leonard and school officials called for the bus agency to purchase the camera systems from Force Multiplier, paying them with fine funds enticed in the mail from people who allegedly drove past the buses as the stop-arm was down. Eventually, the company worked out an arrangement to gain about half of the fine money as well as a monthly retainer to service the camera system.

In the process, Leonard convinced Sorrells he was “underpaid” — even though he was making more than $200,000 — and needed to take bribes through dummy companies and a law firm, according to court documents. Sorrells admitted to receiving more than $3 million, spending much of the money on travel, cars, jewelry, and an apartment in New Orleans. In return, he funneled millions of dollars to Leonard’s firms, doing perfunctory “searches” for other vendors in the process.

Duncan and Caraway were targeted to help with the process. The Dallas agency and Force Multiplier then tried to get other school districts to sign on to the plan. When few bit and not as many fines were collected as expected, the scheme ultimately unraveled.

Many wondered why Duncan was assessed only home confinement; Caraway, for one, blamed Duncan for recruiting him. Prosecutors said they could only charge him with tax evasion; Duncan’s payments from Force Multiplier came in the political donation form, not direct “consulting” payments and “loans” made to Caraway. Some claimed an element of racism, but Caraway has a long history of questionable actions, such as getting his then-City Council member wife to appoint him to the Park Board in the 1990s and accepting consulting fees from his wife.

Duncan, meanwhile, had the Eagle Scout background, with many saying this was his first political transgression. It was a doozy, though, with him using campaign money to buy at least one car and spread cash to school board members to influence them pass on the camera contracts. The contributions from Force Multiplier greatly overshadowed the rest of Duncan’s campaign donations between 2012 and 2016, which numbered less than $8,000.

Bribery in politics and commerce is as old as dirt, though the methods have become more sophisticated and disguised. But the question that haunts the most from this ordeal is, if someone with Duncan’s squeaky-clean background can be compromised in a bribery scam, can’t potentially anyone?

Other camera cash bribery schemes

Other bribery cases involving traffic fine cameras have been documented.

John Bills, a former Chicago transportation official, received a 10-year prison sentence in 2016 after a jury found him guilty of accepting bribes from a red-light camera vendor in exchange for lucrative contracts. Karen Finley, former CEO of vendor Redflex, was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

Redflex also tried to bribe officials in other cities, including Cincinnati and Columbus, with execs giving officials campaign donations. Top officials in those cities were not pursued for whatever reason, but a scapegoat was found in former Columbus City Council aide John Raphael, who received a 15-month sentence.

The donation angle has long been a source of controversy and contention. Politicians usually say they are beyond reproach, that such donations from company execs don’t influence their decisions. Some say they only pay for access, to get a foot in the door, which is getting something.

It’s a fine line. Many pols can cite other reasons for voting a certain way, disguising potential bottom-line motives, perhaps even to themselves. The public safety reason is a hard-to-dispute motive in most cases.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance, a group that lobbies for motorists’ rights, listed numerous campaign contributions given to local politicians between 2007 and 2010 by executives with Sigma Space, which won speed camera contracts in the state. Few would call them bribes. Many would call them business as usual.

Force Multiplier execs also gave campaign cash to key officials in Louisiana and California — including Secretary of State Alex Padilla — that prosecutors charged helped grease the camera cash wheels. The California camera cash dreams never materialized for Force, as officials were more skeptical than in other areas. But they did in Louisiana.

So why are such political donations considered bribes in one case and just normal business in another? It could be that in the former case the donations became so blatant that not even the most jaded official could ignore them. It could just come down to luck or the whims of a certain official.

As a strange aside, in one Louisiana school district, workers installed not just cameras to catch motorists driving by stopped buses, but rear ones to try to catch potential “pedophiles” who could stalk the kids.

Talk about paranoia.

Force Multiplier’s campaigns in Maryland, Virginia

In 2015, a year before the world turned upside down, officials in Montgomery County thought they had found the perfect solution in their unending quest to raise revenue and curb motorists’ urge to speed by stopped school buses at the same time.

The Maryland county of about a million people that borders Washington, D.C., has long been known more for its escalating housing costs and liberal-leaning policies than being a bastion of Big Brother intrusion. Yet, for all of the campaigns to ban Styrofoam and protect immigrants’ rights, the fact remained that Montgomery had more of those controversial camera eyesores that film motorists speeding, running red lights and passing stopped school buses than most across the nation.

In fiscal 2018, Montgomery County — one of the first entities in the country to roll out traffic fine cameras in 1997 — raked in some $16 million in speed camera money alone. That was almost twice as much as the next largest jurisdiction in Maryland, according to a AAA report. Cities within the county — Gaithersburg, Rockville, and Takoma Park — added another $5 million to their coffers. Between 2014 and 2018, government entities in Maryland took in $288.5 million in speed camera fines.

Montgomery padded revenues with almost $4 million in red-light camera fines in 2018, according to budget figures. Officials expect speed and red-light camera fine revenue to rise to $23.6 million in fiscal 2019 in the county — close to 2009’s record high. Add another $6 million for the internal cities. And another $6 million for school bus camera fine revenue, and that’s $36 million, a significant chunk of change.

Camera cash is the largest direct revenue driver for the county police department — parking ticket revenue is fairly close at about $20 million. This revenue is built into the budget, meaning officials need this money every year or they will have to sell old books and other items like libraries do to raise extra cash.

For perspective, New York City —which has some eight times more residents and visitors than Montgomery County — took in $45 million in speed camera fines in 2018, about double that of Montgomery. Chicago, the granddaddy of camera cash in the United States, takes about $95 million annually in such speed and red-light fines. Chicago has about three times as many people as Montgomery so its total is about the same per resident. Montgomery relies much more on camera revenue, as New York and Chicago amass $545 million and $264 million annually in parking fines.

Montgomery had started a bus camera program in 2014, contracting with Xerox Corp., but the initiative did not receive much funding. So in 2015, Montgomery officials traveled all the way to Dallas to meet with Force Multiplier execs, including Leonard. The Montgomery contingent was really high on Force Multiplier, saying in a memo that it had a “technologically superior project” and noting that less than 2 percent of the fines sent out were contested in court.

“In exchange for free installation on all MCPS school buses, [Force] would retain all fine revenues in order to recoup its investment,” reads the memo. “MCPD indicates that [Force] will need to recoup approximately $18 million in fines to break even on their initial investment. At this point, [Force] and the county will negotiate a revenue-sharing plan.”

They lauded the “savings” of some $800,000 annually due to not having to replace some safety equipment. They admitted to skepticism, saying Force’s offer to “absorb 100% of the cost of equipment and installation…. seemed too good to be true.”

They didn’t, of course, know about the shenanigans in Dallas. But if a deal seems too good for even cash-happy public officials, wouldn’t that sound more alarms?

Montgomery moved ahead with the program, even after news of the bribery scam broke. Force Multiplier’s assets moved into a new company, BusPatrol, which officials claimed is totally different. But it lists the same local address in Lorton, Va., as Force Multiplier had. BusPatrol CEO David Poirier was the registered agent for Force, and other former Force employees also work for BusPatrol.

Did Force Multiplier execs donate to the campaigns of Montgomery County officials, as they did the Dallas officials who have been taken down? I searched campaign records but couldn’t locate anything. Such donations could be hidden through friends and associates, though Force was fairly open about donations in California, Texas, and Louisiana. It seems odd, to say the least, for three Montgomery officials to travel all the way to Dallas to talk about this contract with the very officials who were still greasing the wheels in Dallas.

Montgomery expects to amass almost $6 million in fiscal 2020 and $7 million in ensuring years from the school bus fines.

Around the same time, officials with Richmond and Manassas public schools in Virginia met with Force Multiplier to work on implementing cameras on buses. Those districts got the same deal: Force would install cameras at no cost and recoup their millions in ticket fines. Then a revenue sharing plan would be ironed out.

They issued the same reasons for the system: We need to protect the kids. They ignored studies that showed that school bus drivers caused more accidents and harm to students than passing motorists. And those districts kept the program even after the Dallas bribery scandal.

Traffic camera cash — ‘crack cocaine’ of government

If you want to blame someone else for this camera craze, blame the Europeans.

Gatso is credited with developing the first red-light and speed cameras starting in the late 1950s, when the Sweden-based firm was in Holland. Israel began using them in the late 1960s, and they spread to Europe, Australia, and eventually the U.S. A few Texas cities tried the cameras in the 1980s, but officials ended those experiments after too many complaints. They later caught on with cities in New York, California, Maryland, and other states.

At least 142 communities had speed-camera programs and 341 had red-light cameras across the U.S. in 2019, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. While the number of speed-camera cities was about the same as in 2012, red-light entities were down significantly from 533. Maryland has by far the most jurisdictions with speed cameras at 46 — almost one-third of the total nationally. The state has fewer red-light systems at 29 — California, Florida, and Illinois top that list.

The number of communities using school bus cameras has risen since 2012 with more states passing laws allowing that, though specific figures are hard to unearth. The technology is also used to ticket car owners at stop signs, toll booths, and railroad crossings. Washington, D.C., even employs them to assess people for not yielding to pedestrians.

Some jurisdictions have used them to excess. In 2009, the small D.C. burb of Chevy Chase Village took in more camera cash at $4.7 million than its entire operating budget. Officials spent the money on new police cruisers, salaries, and a million-dollar pedestrian walkway. Such revenue has since declined to less than $1 million annually.

In a 2010 public meeting, Village board member Patricia Baptiste referred to the camera cash as “the crack cocaine of local government.” That remains one of the best, short descriptions of the program.

Counties and cities spend relatively little speed-camera money on projects that directly combat speeding, such as radar speed display signs and other “traffic calming” measures, said Ron Ely, founder of the Maryland Drivers Alliance. Larger government entities can more easily employ “creative bookkeeping” to mask where exactly the money goes, but that is harder to do in smaller cities, he said.

What’s really frustrating is how entities are good at using technology to take money from you, but not-so-great at employing it to help improve traffic. The technology is there to synchronize traffic lights so you can get through more than one light at a time. But that’s not a priority in many cities and counties as much as gaining camera cash.

The insurance institute claimed in one study that speed cameras could have prevented more than 21,000 fatalities or serious injuries in vehicle crashes nationwide in 2013. But other studies, including one by police in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena, found that cameras did not reduce collisions and even could increase the number of accidents when drivers slam on their brakes or speed through intersections to avoid a ticket.

In Montgomery County, many speed cameras are placed at the bottom of hills so drivers are naturally going faster than normal. Motorists have to be speeding more than 12 miles over the limit to receive a $40 fine. Some have successfully challenged a citation in court due to not being the driver, mistaken calibrations by the camera system, and other reasons.

But it’s a difficult process. Montgomery County courts hear camera cases in an assembly-line manner in which those whose cars were photographed are presumed to be guilty and they have to somehow prove they aren’t guilty. Even those who go to court and get citations reduced for the ticky-tacky offense of having their vehicle a tad too close to the intersection, such as this writer, end up paying almost as much because courts costs are then added.

Private camera cash operators lead to a profit motive, not public safety, some say. Rather than sending out tickets based on photos, police should write tickets in person.

Ely disputed one citation in district court on the grounds of him not being the driver. The judge told him “the only defense she would accept was for the guilty person to be presented in court and admit to the offense,” he said. The judge also refused to allow the operator of the camera system to be questioned and ruled Ely guilty. Every other speed-camera defendant who appeared that day was declared guilty, “with the exception of some Gaithersburg and Montgomery County police officers,” Ely said.

So he appealed to a circuit court. Ely sent a letter to the court swearing he was not driving the vehicle at the time it was photographed. This judge allowed him to question several prosecution witnesses, none of whom could identify him as the driver in photos. A prosecutor argued that the county statute transfers liability to owners, but the judge found Ely innocent.

Ely said he spent “several times the value of the citation and dozens of hours of time preparing for the case.” The county seemed to go overboard to try to get a guilty verdict, with at least four witnesses and “numerous pieces of evidence not normally presented at district court hearings,” he said. After the judge’s ruling, he said a county attorney protested that it was “unprecedented” and would “turn the entire speed camera program on its head.”

Ely found that argument preposterous. “The idea that the program needs to rely on the ability to find genuinely innocent people guilty, and that for the court to find a few of them not guilty would bring the system crashing down, seems both silly and a bit perverse,” he said. “To quote a line from the movie The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: ‘It must be a fragile system if it can be brought down by just a few berries.’”

Los Angeles is among the cities to end their camera programs, though the county still employs red-light systems. “It was strictly designed to bring in revenue and didn’t do anything for public safety,” Dennis Zine, a former Los Angeles City Council member, said.

The city of Baltimore suspended its camera program and ended the contract with operator Xerox Corp. in 2013 after an audit found that more than 10 percent of speed-camera citations were issued erroneously. Baltimore has since reinstated the program. Voters have rejected the cameras in many referendums, though others have passed the issues.

Capt. Thomas Didone, director of the Montgomery County police department’s traffic division, said the cameras make the roads more safe. “The cameras do work to change behavior,” he said.

Others still see problems. Gene Simmers, a retired traffic engineer who worked at the Maryland State Highway Administration, said he revealed misconduct in his office in the original state speed camera contract, including an unfair bidding process. He was removed “as a whistleblower.”

“I would prefer to see the program shut down. You can’t face your accuser in court when it’s a machine,” Simmers said. “If you have a problem in Baltimore City, you probably have a problem elsewhere.”

Kevin Shay is a longtime journalist who has written for The Dallas Morning News, Washington Post’s Gazette, and other publications. Some books he wrote are here.

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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