- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2019

Montgomery County’s inspector general is questioning the school system’s bus-camera contract with a company that was involved in a bribery scandal in Texas, noting that all of the revenue from bus-camera tickets goes to the company.

Inspector General Edward Blansitt said the aim of “the report is not to undo the program,” but to get a better deal for county taxpayers.

Under the contract, Force Multiplier Solutions supplied the school system with free cameras that photograph the license plates of cars that illegally pass school buses as they pick up or drop off children. Like the speed camera program, the bus cameras issue $250 tickets to the owners of those cars — and the company keeps 100% of the revenue until its estimated investment of $18 million is paid off.

BusPatrol America in 2017 bought the contract that Montgomery County Public Schools negotiated with Force Multiplier Solutions. Although BusPatrol is a separate entity, it has many of the same staff, address, telephone number and equipment as Force Multiplier Solutions, according to the inspector general’s report.

“BusPatrol is, and has always been, a separate and independent company from FMS,” BusPatrol CEO Jean Souliere said, adding that his company acquired FMS in a competitive bidding process in 2017.

The inspector general’s report says there is no evidence that county employees violated any laws in negotiating the FMS contract, but the school system relied on information from Dallas County and FMS officials who subsequently pleaded guilty to bribery.

On Thursday, former Dallas County schools superintendent Rick Sorrells was sentenced to seven years in prison for accepting $3 million in bribes from FMS after he contracted the company to install bus cameras. Former FMS CEO Robert Leonard was sentenced to seven years in prison in May.

Montgomery County Public Schools avoided the public bidding process by using a bridge contract, which allowed the school system to enter a deal with a vendor similar to the contract that another public agency had secured via a bidding process.

In this case, MCPS entered a bridge contract with FMS based on its contract with East Baton Rouge Parish School Board in Louisiana, which called for revenue sharing between the company and the school board. Though it expressed “significant reservations” with FMS, the Louisiana school board offered support for the MCPS program.

Mr. Souliere said his company and MCPS officials are discussing revenue-sharing, which he expects to begin this year.

Mr. Blansitt questioned the $18 million estimate, noting that MCPS does not know how much the vendor invested without a completion of an audit, which is now underway.

BusPatrol has successfully installed cameras on all 1,378 school buses by the beginning of the 2019 school year, said Mr. Souliere.

“The payments received prior to implementing revenue sharing are a critical element to meeting this objective, and are an important element in virtually all of our contracts,” he said.

The contract, which varied from the Louisiana model, was pitched to the Montgomery County Council as a “no-cost” program, aside from the costs of hiring staff to review camera footage to determine a violation.

“There is a cost because the revenue that comes in from the tickets, that they aren’t getting, is the cost to the county,” Mr. Blansitt said. “So far, as I know, it is $15 million.”

The inspector general said that if MCPS had purchased the cameras or gone through a competitive bidding process, it might have gotten a better deal.

“BusPatrol currently maintains both ownership of the cameras and the associated obligations to maintain, repair, replace, relocate (when new buses are purchased to replace older ones) and upgraded the technology of all of the equipment,” Mr. Souliere said. “This provides MCPS with tremendous value without the burden or expense of ongoing maintenance and upgrades.”

In his response to the inspector general report, MCPS Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman noted that the schools system and the county police department did “extensive due diligence” in the search for a vendor.

“In addition to the clear benefits to traffic enforcement — in which only 5.8% of all citations issued were repeat offenders — the camera monitoring capabilities and the ability to equip the entire fleet are critical to ensure student safety while riding MCPS buses,” Mr. Zuckerman wrote, pointing out the cameras’ role in the arrest of a bus operator accused of second-degree rape in 2018.

“Anytime there is a potential savings or potential mismanagement of county funds, that is concerning,” said council member Will Jawando, at-large Democrat. “While it doesn’t look to me that did anything wrong or improper, but it does look like we could get a better deal.”

Mr. Jawando said the council will “dig into the circumstances” of the contract in September.

Council member Tom Hucker, District 5 Democrat, acknowledged that lawmakers are limited in what they can do.

“Our legal authority over the school system is much more limited rather than over a county agency,” Mr. Hucker said. “Our role is to ask questions and to educate ourselves and our constituents as to how [MCPS] reached a decision.”

• Sophie Kaplan can be reached at skaplan@washingtontimes.com.

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