Since the 9/11 attack, the nation has spent billions to upgrade radio systems so that police, firefighters and other first responders can communicate seamlessly in emergencies.
The ambitious taxpayer-funded undertaking has afforded rich business opportunities, particularly for Illinois-based Motorola Solutions.
As McClatchy reporters detailed last week, Motorola Solutions has solidified its position as the leading provider of emergency communications gear by using shrewd business practices, hiring top law enforcement insiders, and spending heavily on campaigns, lobbying and charities favored by its customers.
Motorola sells a vital service. No tools are more important in a disaster than reliable communication devices.
But the investigation led by McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Greg Gordon, part of which ran in The Bee last Sunday, raises basic questions: Is Motorolas equipment so much better than radios offered by competitors that cities and counties are justified in granting it no-bid contracts worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars?
Motorola sells communications equipment used in New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, the Sacramento region, and many points in between. But how has Motorola come to control 80 percent of the market?
In Sacramento County and in other locales, Motorola effectively shut out competitors by embedding proprietary features so its equipment cannot interact with radios made by other companies.
Sacramento County officials told The Bees editorial board that they are pleased with Motorola products, that the equipment is cost-effective, and that Motorola was the one company that could meet specifications for the radios.
Sacramento County pays $3,500 to $4,000 each for Motorola radios. Other locales have paid as much as $7,500. Competing products performing to similar specifications can cost thousands of dollars less.
The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors authorized the contract with Motorola. But given the importance of emergency communications, and the issues raised by the McClatchy series, the board owes it to taxpayers to take a second look at the exclusive arrangement.
Motorola Solutions offers a case study in how big business gets bigger. It surrounds itself with rainmakers, many of whom are former top law enforcement officials.
Its board has included former CIA and National Security Agency chief Michael Hayden and, until recently, William Bratton, the former chief of the Los Angeles and Boston police departments, who has returned to New York City for a second stint as police commissioner.
After radios failed in the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, then-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour set out to vastly improve the communications system. Motorola won Mississippis business with bid prices so low that competitors were dumbfounded, McClatchy reported.
Barbour, a former chair of the Republican National Committee and Republican Governors Association, left office in 2012 and returned to his Washington, D.C., lobby firm, BGR Group. Among the new clients: Motorola Solutions, which has paid BGR Group $200,000 since 2012, reports compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics show. Motorola said in a statement that it is proud to have Barbour on its team.
The company spends $2 million to $3 million a year on lobbying in Washington, and more in state capitals. The nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics has identified 310 lobbyists registered to represent Motorola in the states.
Motorola is a significant campaign donor to federal and state politicians, and law enforcement and firefighter foundations, spreading goodwill to its customer base by, for example, pledging $15 million to the National Law Enforcement Museum, due to open in Washington in 2016.
It works out well for Motorola Solutions. Thanks to government contracts and taxpayer money, Motorola Solutions net income grew to $1.1 billion last year, from $747 million in 2011. Its stock price hovers at $65 a share, after falling to below $15 a share in 2009.
Building two-way radio networks is lucrative. But its not rocket science. Federal, state and local policymakers need to ask hard questions, starting with why contracting officials award sole-source contracts that benefit the industry Goliath and freeze out the competition.