Ex-mayoral aide accused of trying to help firm get camera contract

Ex-mayoral aid accused of trying to help firm get speed camera contract

Baltimore's inspector general has accused Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's former chief of staff of inappropriately attempting to steer a lucrative speed camera contract to one of three firms bidding for the deal.

In a report released Thursday, Inspector General Robert H. Pearre Jr. wrote that Alexander M. Sanchez attempted to help Xerox State & Local Solutions keep a contract to run the city's speed camera system, even though procurement staff said another company had won the bidding process.

That company, Brekford Corp., ultimately was awarded the contract.

But the inspector general faulted Sanchez's efforts, saying the mayoral aide "knowingly used the influence of his office to benefit the best interests of Xerox contrary to the interests of the city and taxpayers." Pearre did not speculate in the report why Sanchez supported Xerox.

Sanchez, who resigned from his $178,000 job at City Hall in May, is now chief operating officer at Goodwill Industries International. He did not respond to requests for comment.

The inspector general's investigation was underway in May, but a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake it had nothing to do with Sanchez leaving his job.

There is "no connection between the investigation and Mr. Sanchez's departure from city government," said spokesman Kevin Harris. "It was a mutually agreed upon decision that the mayor wanted to go in a different direction."

Rawlings-Blake issued a statement on the matter Thursday night, saying, "The actions of my former Chief of Staff Alex Sanchez had no influence over my participation in the contract bid between Xerox and Brekford." She noted that she acted to award the contract to Brekford. "My hope is that Mr. Sanchez will respond to the Inspector General's request to talk through the issues raised," she said.

Harris said the city would not pursue any action against Sanchez. "While the [Inspector General's] conclusions are of concern, it does not say that he did anything illegal," Harris said.

Pearre, a former FBI agent, did not respond to requests for comment.

The city's speed camera system was run for years by Xerox and briefly by Brekford. It was shut down in April 2013 after repeatedly issuing erroneous tickets. An investigation by The Baltimore Sun found errors in the citations issued by many cameras, including tickets for slow-moving or even stopped cars. A leaked audit of the Xerox system later showed the errors were even more widespread than the city had disclosed, with some cameras having error rates of more than 10 percent. Tests of Brekford's system also disclosed widespread problems.

Over a decade, the network generated more than $140 million for city government through $40 speed camera citations given out in school zones and $75 red-light camera tickets. The contract also was worth millions of dollars a year to the vendor, who collected a portion of each fine.

In late 2012, the city engaged in a new bidding process to select a speed and red-light camera company. Pearre's report alleges that Sanchez took phone calls from Xerox lobbyist Sean Malone and attempted to influence the process on Xerox's behalf.

"The extent of [Chief of Staff] Sanchez's inappropriate involvement and efforts to intervene include private email and phone correspondence with Xerox representatives during the bid evaluation process without notifying the City's procurement team," Pearre's report states. "Sanchez also issued directives in direct contrast to the procurement team's decisions in an apparent effort to steer the contract award to Xerox."

Pearre cites several internal emails in which a city official said Sanchez became "testy" about the contract going to Brekford.

A Nov. 7, 2012, email written by a former transportation manager says Sanchez "kept going back to Brekford not being qualified, [the Transportation Department] was taking a big risk, the procurement process is screwed up (because it throws out bids for minor reasons)."

In late December, Sanchez wrote to then-Transportation Director Khalil Zaied, asking that equipment be kept on Xerox's books for six months after the company lost the contract. "What Xerox really needs is to continue to depreciate their assets for another 6 months. I don't pretend to be an accountant, but apparently it makes a big difference on their books [that] they can do that," he wrote.

The inspector general said he believed that in these and other exchanges Sanchez was acting on behalf of Xerox instead of the city.

"Given the Chief of Staff's privileged insight into the confidential bidding process, and his coinciding email and phone correspondence simultaneously with City officials involved in [the] contract award and known Xerox representatives, the [Inspector General's office] believes the Chief of Staff used the influence of his office in an attempt to benefit the best interests of Xerox over those of the City and taxpayers," Pearre wrote.

Pearre also concluded that lower-level city officials were inclined to follow Sanchez's direction "as if it was sanctioned by the mayor." But Pearre said the actions were taken "independently of the mayor."

The report comes as the City Council also is investigating problems with the speed camera system. On Monday, three officials testified before the council that the program failed in part because the city didn't have enough staff to monitor the number of tickets generated. The City Council's next hearing on speed camera issues is scheduled for Dec. 11.

Pearre's investigation included a finding that the system wasn't properly staffed as well as others detailed in multiple Baltimore Sun reports.

He concluded that an internal audit leaked to the paper that found high-error rates was conducted by a "qualified" firm, despite the administration's statements to the contrary. He denounced the city's use of a so-called "bounty system" that rewards vendors for issuing more tickets.

Pearre criticized two city agencies — the police and transportation departments — for being unresponsive to questions. The Police Department did not initially respond to requests for interviews, and eventually provided only "incomplete" information for the inspector general, he wrote. Brekford did not comply with any of the inspector general's requests. Xerox did not make individuals available for interviews within the investigators' time frame, the report states.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Cooper Averella, who served on the mayor's speed camera task force, said she was disturbed by those findings.

"How is the public supposed to have any confidence that the city is committed to accuracy, accountability and transparency where automated enforcement is concerned, when even the [inspector general's] office faced so many challenges obtaining information city agencies to conduct a thorough investigation?" she asked. "It was troubling enough when it was clear the media was being stonewalled. It's even more troubling to find that even the [inspector general's] office couldn't get necessary information."

After shutting down the camera system last year, city officials are hoping to launch a smaller system in 2015 with better monitoring from city staff. In the future, Pearre recommended that "personnel who approve multiple erroneous citations should be removed from the program and/or face administrative action."

Baltimore Transportation Director William Johnson said he generally "concurred" with Pearre's findings.

"There were a lot of lessons learned from the past," he said. "This has been a tough experience for the city but also an opportunity to learn. We are going to try to produce a program that's efficient and accurate and puts enough checks, balances and reviews so the product that gets to the public is a lot more reliable than it's been in the past."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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