Sacramento to award controversial red-light camera contract

Sacramento County is poised to award a major contract for operation of its intersection red-light cameras to an Arizona company that made headlines earlier this year for a bribery scandal involving a similar contract in Chicago.

The company, Redflex Traffic Systems, funneled unreported payments and gifts to the Chicago official in charge of that city’s red-light program, company officials have acknowledged. Redflex officials say they have cleaned house since then. Sacramento County sheriff’s officials met with Redflex and say they believe the company has righted itself.

Still, the firm that finished second to Redflex in the local bid competition, American Traffic Solutions of Arizona, has filed an official protest with Sacramento County, arguing that it is a safer choice to run the program.

County staff, which vetted four finalist companies, has tentatively set Dec. 10 for the Board of Supervisors to approve Redflex for a three- to seven-year contract worth an estimated $6.5 million to $11 million. Redflex holds the existing contract for installation, operation and maintenance of red-light cameras at 26 major intersections in the city and county. That contract expires next month. County and city officials say they plan to expand the program eventually to 40 intersections.

The contract approval has been scheduled for the board’s “consent calendar,” where items are voted on without public debate.

Several supervisors told The Bee this week they have been told nothing yet by county staff about Redflex’s past problems.

“This is the first I am hearing of it,” Supervisor Phil Serna said. “I will be asking questions about the history and the character of the entities that we do business with.”

“I know nothing about this,” Supervisor Jimmie Yee said. “I didn’t know the contract was coming up for renewal.”

Redflex, which has been operating Sacramento’s cameras since 2008, is one of the major players nationally in the lucrative private contracting traffic-camera business.

It ran into trouble after the Chicago Tribune reported what it described as a $2 million bribery scheme involving Redflex. The incident is under federal investigation, according to the Tribune. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago told The Bee he could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

Redflex announced earlier this year that its own internal investigation confirmed that company representatives had acted improperly, including paying for travel, hotels, meals and entertainment for the city employee, in violation of Chicago city ordinances. The company sent letters to its other clients, including Sacramento County, acknowledging the scandal. It also posted a mea culpa on its website.

“Recently some of our employees engaged in unethical practices in connection with our contract in Chicago,” the company stated. “We’ve admitted our mistakes, changed how we’re doing business and have moved on. The people who were involved in our Chicago activity are no longer with us and we have developed what we believe to be a best in class ethics and compliance program.”

Four top company executives were among those who resigned or were fired, the firm said.

Redflex executives met in March in Sacramento with Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones to answer questions and explain the corrective steps the company has taken. The Sheriff’s Department is the agency that coordinates the red-light camera program for the city and county.

“We felt they did as much as they could and that this was an isolated incident that did not impact our program,” Sacramento sheriff’s Sgt. Lisa Bowman said. “We feel the corporation itself is not corrupt and continue to monitor the company and their progression since this incident.”

Redflex officials said earlier this year they were looking into the possibility of improprieties in two other jurisdictions. Redflex spokeswoman Jody Ryan told The Bee this week Sacramento is not one of those locations.

In its formal protest letter last week, ATS, the company that came in second, contends Redflex should have been given a higher “risk” rating than ATS. The company also contends the county bid process gave a competitive advantage on pricing to Redflex as the existing camera operator.

“While ATS is in no way attempting to smear or otherwise harm Redflex’s reputation, … Redflex should not have received the same ‘risk’ score as ATS, who has never been the subject of bribery allegations,” ATS stated in its protest letter.

County officials declined this week to offer details on how they rated the four competing companies, but Craig Rader, the county’s purchasing agent, said the process did take into account the Chicago issue. Rader said the county did not give a competitive advantage on pricing to Redflex.

Members of the Board of Supervisors did not indicate how they would vote on the matter.

“I can’t say; I haven’t seen the item yet,” Supervisor Susan Peters said. She said she called the sheriff this week after receiving an inquiry from The Bee. “He feels there are adequate safeguards in place to prevent the situation from happening again,” she said.

Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan said she had not yet been briefed on the issue, but added, “Chicago style politics have never, and will never, have a place in Sacramento County.”