For the past two years, not a single city employee has been publicly reprimanded for their role in the botched, now-suspended speed camera program that has cost taxpayers at least $30 million in lost revenues, consultant fees and vendor settlements.
Last Thursday, Inspector General Robert H. Pearre Jr. accused Alexander M. Sanchez, the mayor’s ex-chief of staff, of engaging in activities “in direct conflict with the Chief of Staff’s responsibilities and obligations as a trusted public official and steward of good governance for the city and taxpayers.”
Within hours of the release of the report, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued a statement calling on her ex-aide to fess up.
“My hope is that Mr. Sanchez will respond to the inspector general’s report to talk through the issues raised,” she said, while declaring that she had nothing to do with his actions.
But unlike other top officials, who were given the Pearre report ahead of its public release and given space in the report to comment on its findings – Sanchez never got a chance to respond to Pearre’s accusations before his name was publicly spread across eight pages of the IG’s report.
Pearre accused Sanchez of leaking the name of the winning camera bidder, Brekford Corp., to Xerox’s lobbyist Sean R. Malone, of intervening on behalf of Xerox regarding a letter of default written by the City Solicitor’s Office, and of trying to delay the January 2013 transition of cameras from Xerox that resulted in the chaotic and unsuccessful attempt by Brekford to run the program.
None of these offenses violate the city’s ethics or procurement laws. Nor is there any indication that Sanchez received any financial benefit from his alleged “attempt to benefit the best interests of Xerox over those of the city and taxpayers,” to use Pearre’s words.
The Inspector General goes soft on other members of the mayor’s office, saying he “believes that COS Sanchez conducted these actions independently of the Mayor, as evidence by the Mayor’s vote at the Board of Estimates hearing to award the contract to Brekford.”
An Outsider in a Tight Circle
In trying to parse the political backdrop to this report, it should be emphasized that Sanchez was never part of the mayor’s inner circle.
Recruited from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation in 2012 after Gov. Martin O’Malley’s younger brother, Peter, left the post, Sanchez was a kept on a short leash by the mayor. He had little public presence in the administration and was replaced by Kaliope Parthemos, a true SRB intimate, in May 2014.
Pearre’s report says that Sanchez’s city-issued cell phone registered a 4:18 p.m. incoming call on October 19, 2012 from Xerox lobbyist Malone – 28 minutes after email records showed that Sanchez had been notified by the Department of Transportation (DOT) of the award to Brekford.
“Based on the timing of the phone call, the OIG is confident that their phone call was primarily related to ATVES [the speed camera program],” the report says.
But Malone says Pearre got it wrong.
In a letter sent Friday to the IG and released to The Brew, Malone said he had been informed on the morning of October 19, 2012 by an official at DOT that Xerox had been disqualified, and that he had called Sanchez that afternoon with questions as to why “my client had been improperly disqualified from the bidding.”
Malone says he did not pressure Sanchez to reverse the award because Xerox had already been disqualified, and Sanchez did not “promise any action as a result of our phone calls.”
The murky relations between lobbyists and city officials are a theme of many stories on this website. That is especially true when it comes to a powerful lobbyist like Malone whose marriage last year to fellow lobbyist and partner, Lisa Harris Jones, was officiated by Mayor Rawlings-Blake in Las Vegas.
But the accusations against Sanchez appear minor – if not immaterial – to the larger question of how DOT officials picked a company that had so little experience in speed cameras. Or how the agency, with the mayor’s approval, subsequently managed to spend more than $400,000 in consultant studies on a program that is still suspended.
BREW Stories on the Speed Camera Program
• Speed cameras, not supposed to cost a dime, will now require $2.2 million (4/10/13)
• City temporarily suspends speed camera program (4/16/13)
• New speed cameras will cost more, not less, from city preferred vendor (4/19/13)
• Lessons from the speed camera mess (12/18/13)
• Rawlings-Blake seeks another $160,000 for speed cameras (2/3/14)
Pearre’s report does not address these questions other than to say that his office was unable to secure necessary information from DOT and, to a lesser extent, the Police Department, which oversaw the issuance of speeding and red-light tickets.
We have asked Pearre to comment on these points. We have not yet received a response.
Looming Problems Downplayed by DOT
A knowledgeable source, who was directly involved in the Brekford-Xerox dispute, says that Sanchez was trying to help with a sticky situation, but was thwarted by DOT officials who were convinced that Brekford could step up and administer the program. (Sanchez has not responded to the IG report publicly.)
“He’s not carrying water for Xerox,” this source said. “His only intention was to clean up a mess that was created by DOT, whose RFP [Request for Proposals] was so poorly written that it almost guaranteed problems.”
Some of the emails printed in Pearre’s report support this interpretation.
Then-DOT Director Khalil A. Zaied, who was promoted to the $148,000 deputy mayor’s position in January 2013, seems to have gone out of his way to undermine Sanchez’s concerns that Brekford was not prepared to handle the contract.
“Heads up: COS Sanchez does not like where we [DOT] are going with this,” Zaied wrote to a city lawyer on October 22, 2012.
His deputy director later wrote: “He [Sanchez] kept going back to Brekford not being qualified, DOT was taking a big risk. . . I told him, yes, they are a smaller, less experienced firm that will need to scale up. But if they can operate an 18-camera system, then the technology works and that is what matters most.”
The internal controversy continued as Sanchez counseled in December 2012 for a six-month transition between Xerox and Brekford, saying “seems better than an abrupt end [of the Xerox contract] on Jan 1, holding back payments, ensuing lawsuits and the program going dark because Brekford isn’t ready.”
Zaied wanted none of this approach. “They [Xerox] are trying to us us and the new vendor hostage!” he wrote.
Absent from Pearre’s report is any mention of what role that Mayor Rawlings-Blake played in the events that led to Brekford’s botched take-over of the speed camera program in January 2013 – resulting in the suspension of the program four months later, followed by a slew of legal settlements and consultant studies that have not yet been fully disclosed, either in the IG report or anywhere else.