Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers accepted free meals worth thousands of dollars from the private company that operates the county’s red-light intersection cameras, then recommended the county choose that company over several competitors for a new red-light contract worth up to $11.8 million, a Sacramento Bee review has found.
Documents obtained by The Bee under the California Public Records Act show that Redflex Traffic Systems paid for at least 250 meals worth $3,800 over a five-year period for more than a dozen deputies and CHP officers, possibly violating department policies. The meals, ranging from $4 to $27, were provided to sheriff’s employees and CHP officers involved with the red-light cameras in Sacramento.
Five of those officials served on the eight-person evaluation team that ranked Redflex No. 1 among four competing companies for the new red-light camera contract last fall.
Two of California’s leading government ethics experts say the meals call into question whether the county’s contract process was fair. They also criticized the county for a lack of transparency by not revealing publicly that people involved in the vetting process had been treated to meals.
All five members of the county Board of Supervisors, who voted in December to award the new contract to Redflex, told The Bee last week they were unaware that evaluation panel members had gotten free meals. Supervisor Phil Serna said he has begun talking with county attorneys about drafting stricter conflict-of-interest disclosure rules.
“I’m going out on a limb here and saying you should not be receiving a gift or meal, regardless of the amount, when you are a public employee and are delegated the authority to review prospective contract awardees,” Serna said.
Redflex, based in Arizona, is a national leader in red-light camera operations. The company is embroiled in a $2 million bribery scandal in Chicago, where a Redflex employee is accused of providing cash, vacations and other gifts to a city official in exchange for helping Redflex gain and maintain a contract to run that city’s camera program, according to media reports. Redflex’s former chief executive and another employee have been indicted, and have pleaded not guilty. Redflex announced last year that it replaced the company’s top executives following the Chicago scandal and had rewritten its ethics policies.
In a recent interview, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said he believes there was no “quid pro quo” involved in the free meals. Jones acknowledged that he did not know about the meals until he began reviewing his department’s relationship with Redflex last year after the Chicago scandal broke. He said he immediately ordered staff members to stop accepting meals because of the appearance of conflict of interest.
“We should not be getting anything free from our vendors,” Jones said. “I put the kibosh on it.”
Jones described the meals as business meetings among deputies, CHP officers and Redflex representatives to discuss ongoing contract and camera-management issues. The county, in conjunction with the CHP, oversees operations of cameras at several dozen intersections in the county and city of Sacramento. The CHP is involved because its officers have traffic policing responsibilities on all county roads.
Redflex has operated Sacramento’s cameras since it won its initial county contract in 2008. The free meals began a few months before Redflex won that contract, documents show. They continued while the company worked for the county and as it prepared to bid on a contract renewal that was eventually awarded in December 2013.
Some meals were held one-on-one between a Redflex representative and a local officer, according to a 10-page list of meal dates and amounts provided to The Bee by the Sheriff’s Department. In other instances, up to five local law enforcement officers were treated to lunch or dinner by one or more Redflex reps. The list does not say where the meals took place, other than a mention of a $108.36 six-person meal at a Red Robin restaurant, and a $13.31 purchase at a Starbucks.
Jones said he believes the meals did not lead to favorable treatment when the panel ranked Redflex first last year in the competition for the city-county red-light camera operations contract, which ultimately resulted in Redflex securing the county’s business for up to seven more years. That panel discussed the relative merits of the four companies and composed a numeric ranking, with Redflex first, mainly because it proposed the lowest monthly fees to the county, documents show. The makeup of the panel was proposed by the Sheriff’s Department, according to county purchasing agent Craig Rader, who helped oversee the bid process.
Representatives of the companies that placed second and third said their companies did not provide meals to county or CHP employees. The fourth-place finisher could not be reached.
The panel members who are listed in documents as accepting free meals are sheriff’s Sgt. Todd Deluca, sheriff’s records officer Sherri Hrabak, Deputy Alison Abbott, and CHP officers Dominick Blancarte and Kevin Holt.
The Sheriff’s Department and the CHP declined Bee requests to speak to the five panel members who received meals. Deluca, who handled day-to-day operations of the camera program and is listed as accepting the most meals – 117 meals worth $1,789 – did not respond to a Bee phone message requesting an interview. Deluca has been reassigned to patrol, a spokeswoman said.
Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, a government ethics expert, said the scenario doesn’t appear to be illegal but that it does prompt questions about whether the contract process was fair.
“Even if it is not a corrupt relationship, it doesn’t look good,” said Levinson, who is a member of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. “It tells a story of a company trying to curry favor with the government and tells the public that government is where people go who can pay to play.”
Bob Stern, co-author of California’s landmark Political Reform Act, agreed. “Why are they (Redflex) doing this? They don’t take me out. They don’t take you out. They take out people who have influence. It shows the need to have a policy that says ‘no free lunches.’ ”
Sheriff Jones, in his interview with The Bee, said he first met with Redflex officials in March 2013 to talk about the Chicago issues but did not hear about the free meals until December, when he ordered them stopped.
“Please send me the list of gratuities that our employees have received from Redflex over the years, specific to the person, dollar amount, and reason,” Chief Deputy Erik Maness wrote to Redflex on Dec. 3. “Yesterday you mentioned several business lunches that exceeded $400 to $500 per year.”
The documents supplied by the county to The Bee showed meals provided by Redflex between 2008 and 2012. County officials said they don’t have meal records for 2013.
According to its website, Redflex allows its employees to offer government workers gifts or hospitality as long as the gifts “cannot reasonably be interpreted as an attempt to obtain or retain an improper business advantage for Redflex,” and only if the gratuity is allowed by the local government’s policies. A Redflex spokeswoman, in an email, said the company makes that information available to local governments where Redflex has contracts. “As with all Redflex customers, we offer annualized audits of gift and gratuities as part of our commitment to transparency in our working relations.”
A Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department “general order” prohibits its employees from accepting gifts or gratuities, stating: “Except as such may be authorized by law, employees shall not accept, either directly or indirectly, any gift, gratuity, fee or other substance of value for doing an official act within the scope and course of their employment with the Sheriff’s Department.”
Jones told The Bee he thinks “it’s a gray area” whether the meals violate that policy. The sheriff said he did not discipline anyone but that the free meals give the appearance of conflict of interest, and that is why he had it stopped. “This was a small thing that wasn’t allowed to become a big thing. We are trying to avoid a quid pro quo: ‘I will give for you if you give for me.’ ”
California Highway Patrol Capt. John Price said the CHP previously learned of the matter and “appropriate action was taken to prevent future occurrences.” Price declined further comment, saying it was a personnel matter. CHP policy states that officers shall not accept gifts or unusual hospitality “that may in any way tend to influence them in the performance of their duties.”
County supervisors, who voted 5-0 in December to renew with Redflex, said they learned about the issue last week when The Bee began making inquiries. None expressed interest in revisiting their vote.
Supervisor Don Nottoli said the Board of Supervisors should have been told about the meals before the December vote. “In the context of the controversy (in Chicago) around Redflex, it raises a red flag,” he said.
Documents show that county staff and a Redflex attorney made a point at the time of assuring the supervisors that the company did not cross ethical or legal lines in Sacramento, despite its problems in Chicago.
“There is no indication whatsoever ... (that) unethical behavior has occurred with Redflex Traffic Systems in Sacramento,” stated a staff report submitted by Jones and approved by County Executive Bradley Hudson the week before the vote.
In a letter to the Board of Supervisors a month after the vote, a Redflex attorney wrote, “Redflex is not aware of any conduct that has not already been disclosed that could even arguably be characterized as ethical violations involving Sacramento.”
Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan said she is pleased that the sheriff had stopped the meals, but also expressed disappointment that she and fellow supervisors were left in the dark. “I am not saying we would have made a different decision,” she said. “This is not lavish entertainment, but the appearance is not good.”