Traffic camera giant Redflex has been lobbying the Rawlings-Blake administration and City Council to take over Baltimore's once-lucrative speed and red-light camera network — stressing that it should not be judged by an unfolding scandal in Chicago in which a former executive is charged with bribery.
The Arizona-based firm ran Chicago's red-light cameras for a decade, generating $500 million in revenue, but lost the work last year amid city and federal investigations. Officials in Baltimore said Thursday that the company, which was once a finalist to run this city's system, has used the recent talks to distance itself from the Chicago indictments.
"They wanted me and others to know that they had made significant changes at their company," said City Councilman Carl Stokes. "They indicated they would be interested in Baltimore. They were doing proactive work."
Jody Ryan, a spokeswoman for Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., confirmed the lobbying effort. She said the company has conducted an internal investigation into Chicago activities, made "aggressive leadership changes" and begun anti-corruption and anti-bribery training for employees. Ryan said the company has "cooperated fully" with authorities.
"We contacted members of the Baltimore City Council to inform them of our industry expertise in photo enforcement and industry leading compliance process and procedures," she said in an email. "Since we announced the findings of our internal investigation, we've signed, renewed or executed over 100 contracts."
Redflex is the third speed camera company to register lobbyists in an attempt to run Baltimore's system — once the largest in North America. The company has retained local lawyers Kenneth J. Battle Jr. and Kimberly Robinson of the Funk & Bolton firm, who have registered as lobbyists with the city, documents show.
The local system has been shut down for more than a year following The Baltimore Sun's revelations about erroneous tickets. The Sun investigation found errors at many cameras, including tickets issued for slow-moving or stopped cars. When operating, the network of 83 speed cameras and 81 red-light cameras brought more than $140 million to city government through $40 speed camera citations given out in school zones and $75 red light camera tickets.
Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, confirmed that Redflex representatives have met with the city's Transportation Department. But he said the mayor has no immediate plans to reactivate the system.
Harris said the administration is waiting for the City Council to complete an investigation of Baltimore's camera problems before requesting new bids.
"We told [Redflex representatives] what we tell everyone: It's not something we're looking to do in the immediate future," Harris said. "If that changes, they can bid like everybody else."
City Council members expressed mixed reactions to the lobbying effort. Several said they favor speed cameras to slow down drivers and raise revenue, but have grown distrustful of them amid repeated problems in Baltimore's program.
Councilman Brandon Scott said the city would be wise to have no dealings with Redflex.
"There should be no thought to having them operate our speed camera system here," Scott said. "We should use no taxpayer dollars on a business that doesn't operate properly."
Even so, Scott said he's heard from many constituents who want the cameras back online, including those who live near Walther and Glenmore avenues in Northeast Baltimore. Drivers have crashed into residents' vehicles parked outside homes, he said, adding that he's working with the Department of Transportation on a plan to slow traffic while the cameras are off.
But Councilman Robert Curran said he's been actively petitioning the administration to find a new operator for safety reasons and to plug the revenue gap.
"Why don't we have them back up? What's going on? We're losing revenue," Curran said. "What are we doing to get the program back up?"
Redflex is at the center of a federal grand jury probe in Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune; the city inspector general is also investigating. Last week, a former Redflex Traffic Systems CEO and a top City Hall manager were indicted on charges of conspiring to rig that city's red-light camera business for a decade.
The Redflex executive, Karen Finley, was indicted along with former Chicago official John Bills and a longtime Bills friend accused of being the bagman in a $2 million bribery scheme that ran from 2002 until 2012, when the Tribune first disclosed Bills' ties to the company, the paper reported. They all have denied the charges.
Redflex is among the most prominent traffic camera companies in the country. A competitor, however, has been lobbying Baltimore's government even longer. Last year, Arizona-based speed camera firm American Traffic Solutions Inc. spent $25,000 lobbying the city.
Charles Territo, a spokesman for American Traffic, has said it could improve camera operations in Baltimore, and noted the troubles with erroneous tickets issued under previous vendors Xerox State & Local Solutions and Brekford Corp.
An audit of Xerox's cameras showed some had double-digit error rates and tests of Brekford's system disclosed widespread problems.
Xerox has retained Baltimore's top lobbying firm Harris Jones & Malone, but reported no payments to the lobbyists during 2013. Payments made this year are not disclosed until January 2015.
A City Council committee is investigating the work of Xerox and Brekford in Baltimore, but that probe has stalled. Councilman James B. Kraft has said he needs to hire staff to go through the voluminous documents the Rawlings-Blake administration turned over to him.
City Council Vice Chairman Edward Reisinger said he hopes the administration will not move forward with a new contract until Kraft has finished his work.
"There are still concerns and issues that have to be addressed," Reisinger said. "It's the cart before the house. I don't want to hire anybody before we have the investigation."
Councilwoman Helen Holton, one of several council members who has been approached by the lobbyists, is eager for the cameras to go back online. Still, she hopes the city insists on more control over the program.
"I look at the revenue that other jurisdictions are getting and ask, 'Why would we not?'" she said. "But we should not be so quick to farm out 98 percent of this effort. We should have some skin in the game. I want to see us do it right."