Gwinnett County school officials solicited a $3,500 donation this year from a traffic safety company while the firm was under consideration for a multimillion-dollar contract to install cameras on school buses, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.
The company, Redflex Traffic Systems, ponied up the money to buy food and drinks at a convention of transportation officials on Jekyll Island in June. Three weeks later, Redflex was picked as the staff’s choice for the contract.
Redflex, which is being investigated in an alleged $2 million, decade-long bribery scheme in Chicago, is projected to make $2.5 million a year through the Gwinnett contract.
Officials with the school system say they have done nothing wrong, that the solicitation was made to a large number of vendors and was not aimed specifically at Redflex. But the county’s top prosecutor has called the request for a donation while a contract is under consideration “an unusual way of doing business” and a likely violation of policy for most governments.
Transportation officials from across the state gathered at the convention hosted by the Georgia Association for Pupil Transportation, a nonprofit organization whose former president is Gwinnett Schools Transportation Director Grant Reppert.
Reppert served on the committee that recommended Redflex for the Gwinnett contract and is listed on the nonprofit’s website as the contact person for sponsorships. He said Redflex’s donation did not influence the decision, and he denied any personal involvement in the solicitation.
“Although the solicitation emails went out over my signature, I did not personally solicit any vendors,” Reppert said.
Emails between district officials and the company, obtained by the newspaper through an Open Records Act request, show that those working for the school district’s Transportation Department said they were soliciting the donation at Reppert’s request.
For example, Leslie Russell, the facilities and operations assistant in the department, wrote an email May 29 to Redflex’s point person on the contract.
“Grant asked me to send you the following attachments,” Russell wrote. Those attachments included a list of sponsorships available at the conference.
Another email, sent June 4 by consultant Barry Rooker, who also was on the committee that recommended Redflex, wrote to the Redflex official that he was “just touching base on a request from Grant to chat” about the sponsorship.
Redflex’s Jill Meinke responded a few hours later.
“I’m sorry I’m responding so late. … We’d like to stay in the $3,500 range and will follow whatever recommendations you or the convention center have regarding specific snack/beverage choices,” Meinke’s email says.
Reppert personally responded to Meinke by email the next day: “This is great news …” he wrote, with instructions to send the check to Russell at the Gwinnett County Public Schools administration office.
A ‘blanket solicitation’
Gwinnett County School Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks said he doesn’t think the solicitation was improper because it was a “blanket solicitation to about 70 vendors.” When told emails were sent directly to the Redflex official in charge of the Gwinnett contract, Wilbanks replied: “A follow-up is always to find out who is going to help and who isn’t. That’s not a direct solicitation. I don’t think our people did anything wrong.”
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said soliciting money from a company bidding on a contract “would be a violation of any government purchasing policy that I am aware of.”
“That would be an unusual way of doing business based on my experience,” Porter said.
In 2005, then-Georgia Commissioner of Corrections James Donald faced investigation for having department employees solicit about $100,000 from vendors for a conference. Attorney General Thurbert Baker determined the solicitations were not illegal, but he raised numerous ethical concerns.
Redflex spokeswoman Jody Ryan said the company has sponsored events at the conference during the previous three years. She said the sponsorship offer this year from Gwinnett officials was “carefully evaluated … to understand its business purpose and ensure it complied with Redflex’s policies.”
“After careful consideration the sponsorship opportunity was granted because, among other things, it was industrywide and not directed at any particular group or entity,” Ryan said. “Instead, it was a large breakfast that involved virtually every Georgia school district and was not targeted in any way at the Gwinnett procurement.”
Redflex’s competitor for the contract, American Transportation Systems, was solicited for a sponsorship but declined, a company representative said. ATS has protested the contract award on grounds that Redflex is not trustworthy.
$2 million share for district
Redflex contracts with municipalities all over the world to run cameras mounted on stoplights. A separate arm of the company installs cameras on school bus stop arms to catch drivers who illegally pass buses while the stop arm is out.
The company’s proposal to Gwinnett calls for initially putting cameras on 100 school buses and 300 by the end of the year. Its proposal suggests revenue from the resulting tickets would be shared between the company and the district. The district is expected to make $2 million a year, and $160 per month is slated to go to police for each bus equipped with a camera to cover costs of prosecuting the tickets, estimated at about $300 each.
The company ran into trouble last year when The Chicago Tribune ran a series of stories detailing the bribery scandal. The company later acknowledged after an internal investigation that bribes had been given to the city official in charge of the stoplight camera program. A federal investigation is ongoing.
Members of the Gwinnett County school board weren’t told about the Chicago scandal before they approved the stop-arm camera contract with Redflex on July 28. Wilbanks said he didn’t tell the board because he wasn’t told himself, something Reppert and Rooker acknowledge as an “oversight.”
A 64-page bid analysis did reference the bribery scandal as “an isolated incident.”
Email exchanges also raise questions about how open some officials were about the scandal. Before a meeting with school resource officers in late March, Rooker, whose company made more than $170,000 in 2012 working for the school system, suggested that Redflex’s Meinke not mention the scandal.
“Don’t worry about the Chicago deal. I don’t believe anyone has heard about it. So no need to mention it,” Rooker’s email says.
Superintendent Wilbanks said there was nothing improper with the communication.
“It was not anything germane to what they were supposed to talk with the school resource officers about,” he said.
Gwinnett County’s bid review, Page 33
“In our due diligence, GCPS was made aware of a Redflex Corruption Scandal involving the City of Chicago and their Red-light camera contract. There were apparent bribery and illegal payments made between various parties, including certain high level Redflex executives and Chicago City Project managers. This resulted in Redflex losing its Red-Light contract with the City of Chicago, and for now precluded Redflex from consideration in their School Bus Stop Arm programs.
As a result of audits and Redflex’s own internal investigation, those Redflex individuals were terminated. Since the SmartBus School Bus Stop Arm Camera division operated independently from the Red-Light division, there were never any accusations or evidence of involvement from Smartbus personnel. In fact, the SmartBus executives have since replaced the Redflex executives in question. Further Redflex internal audit procedures have been put in place to avoid situations like this in the future.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in August that Gwinnett County Public Schools had awarded a contract to Redflex Traffic Systems without informing school board officials about allegations that the company was involved in a $2 million, decade-long bribery scheme. Today’s story, based on emails the AJC obtained through a request under the Open Records Act, reports that a school system official, on behalf of a state association, requested a donation three weeks before Redflex received the contract.