A Harahan-based company specializing in school bus traffic cameras appears to have stopped operating amid an alleged bribery scandal in Dallas that investigators say could cost taxpayers there tens of millions of dollars.
The FBI has launched a probe, looking at the company's CEO as well as the head of a Texas state agency that bought thousands of its traffic cameras.
Force Multiplier Solutions' fall from grace has left its clients, including about two dozen school districts across the country, in the lurch. East Baton Rouge and Jefferson parishes, which adopted the company’s camera system years ago, are two of them.
On Feb. 7, the Jefferson Parish School Board voted unanimously to terminate its contract with Force Multiplier. East Baton Rouge school officials are considering doing the same.
Both also are considering whether to sign on with a successor company, Canada-based BusPatrol Inc. BusPatrol, which is run by many of the same people, claims it has acquired Force Multiplier’s assets but not its liabilities.
For more than a decade, Force Multiplier, operating under different names, has offered school districts an attractive deal. The company would buy, install and maintain elaborate video camera systems on school buses, systems that would ordinarily cost an estimated $10,000 per bus. The company charged nothing up front. Instead, it reaped a hefty share of the revenue collected from camera tickets paid by motorists caught speeding through bus stops.
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Jefferson Parish was one of the company’s first clients, signing on in 2007, back when the firm was called ONGO Live. East Baton Rouge Parish signed on in 2011 when the company was called Busguard.
Now, the company has gone dark. The company’s main website has been down for weeks. Voicemails left at its Harahan office were not returned.
Officials in both school districts said they knew the company was having problems but didn’t realize the extent.
“We couldn't get anyone to service the cameras,” said Lale Geer, chief planning and operating officer for the Jefferson Parish system. “It was like chasing a ghost.”
Followers of the news in Dallas would not be surprised. For the past year, Force Multiplier has been the subject of intense news scrutiny.
Force Multiplier’s current problems grew out of its relationship with its biggest client, a state agency in Texas called Dallas County Schools. DCS ran no schools but did operate about 2,000 public schools buses, primarily in Dallas, making it one of the largest student transportation agencies in the country. DCS ended up becoming business partners with Force Multiplier, directing at least $70 million in public money its way over a six-year period.
As part of the deal, DCS purchased or leased Force Multiplier cameras and then turned around and gave those cameras to other school districts for free. In return, DCS got a hefty slice of the fines paid by bus stop runners.
But the program didn't collect nearly as much as anticipated — there were fewer violators than expected and even fewer who bothered to pay the tickets — and the agency ended up millions of dollars in debt. A recent agency-commissioned forensic audit pointed to the bus camera contract, and related improper financial transactions, as the primary reason for the agency's slide into insolvency. In November, voters dissolved the scandal-ridden bus agency.
During this period, the FBI launched a criminal investigation of Force Multiplier CEO Robert Leonard and former DCS Superintendent Rick Sorrells. Federal agents in June raided Force Multiplier’s office in Dallas and a home of Leonard’s in New Orleans, and separately seized cars and other property belonging to Leonard, a lawyer of Leonard's later admitted to a reporter with KXAS-TV, the NBC affiliate in Dallas, which has covered the story closely.
The TV station also reported Sorrells and Leonard were so close they had side-by-side apartments in the French Quarter and often entertained with each other.
On Feb. 13, New Orleans businessman Slater Swartwood Sr. appeared in federal court in Dallas to plead guilty to money laundering. Leonard has described Swartwood as his "real estate consultant for over 40 years."
As part of his plea agreement, Swartwood told federal investigators for years he served as a middleman, funneling $3 million in bribes and kickbacks between Leonard and Sorrells, who are not named in the document but described by their positions.
Neither Leonard or Sorrells have been charged with a crime. Leonard has maintained publicly that he did nothing wrong and instead blamed DCS for mismanagement. Messages left with the Dallas-based attorneys for Leonard and Sorrells were not returned.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system relationship with Force Multiplier has not had dire financial consequences. Indeed, the company has paid the school system $358,859 in all. That represents 20 percent of the traffic ticket fines collected over a six-year period. The Sheriff’s Office, which had to decide whether the evidence is strong enough to issue a ticket, earned 10 percent, while Force Multiplier earned the remaining 70 percent.
“We were really excited about it because of the safety features that were provided,” said Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. “We were less interested in making money on that thing.”
Geer, with Jefferson Parish, said Force Multiplier’s bus cameras system held a lot of promise: “In concept, I think it's a great idea.”
Force Multiplier equipped each bus with eight exterior cameras. The exterior traffic camera was attached to the stop arm. They also installed three interior cameras, including a rear “pedophile finder” camera to catch potential stalkers trailing the kids on the school bus.
Promises to outfit the entire fleets of East Baton Rouge and Jefferson parishes, however, were not kept. Geer said the company wanted to put cameras only on buses that traversed the most dangerous routes.
East Baton Rouge Parish’s Chief of Student Support Services Gary Reese said the company stopped installing cameras after outfitting almost 250 buses, about 40 percent of the fleet, saying it planned to come back with even better cameras, but it never did.
Reese said the videos taken by Force Multiplier cameras were its best feature. They were useful in sorting out who was telling the truth in student and employee disciplinary issues.
“We used it for that reason more than anything,” Reese said.
But in December, Force Multiplier stopped supplying videos upon request, Reese said. Soon after, a letter arrived from Leonard, a letter that Jefferson Parish also received. It informed them both that Force Multiplier was bowing out and instead "all assets, including our contracts with school districts, have been purchased and will be assigned to BusPatrol America, L.L.C."
In an interview, BusPatrol’s CEO Jean Souliere said that’s not accurate. He said BusPatrol bought only the company’s assets, particularly its “intellectual property,” but not its contracts or its liabilities.
“We did not trust them at all,” Souliere said. “Buying the company, we didn’t know what we would find, what kind of skeletons were in there.”
BusPatrol Inc. was formerly the Canadian subsidiary of Force Multiplier. It changed names on May 29 — the French version of the company is BusPatrouille Inc. In July, its Canadian partners registered a new company, BusPatrol America, in several U.S. states. David Poirier, president and chief operating officer for Force Multiplier, is now president of BusPatrol America. He is one of many BusPatrol employees who are holdovers from the old company.
Souliere said he and his fellow Canadian investors began their escape almost a year ago, soon after receiving a troubling phone call from Leonard, who indicated the company was having financial problems.
“Our move was very defensive one,” Souliere said. “I had to protect our reputation."
Since then, Souliere said BusPatrol has continued to service old Force Multiplier accounts “at our expense.” During that time, he and other BusPatrol representatives have slowly been reaching out to former Force Multiplier clients and have signed up five counties in Alabama, Georgia, Maryland and Virginia. Souliere said BusPatrol did not buy Force Multiplier's assets in Louisiana and Texas until December, so it’s only now connecting with those clients, Souliere said.
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While the company has yet to make contact with East Baton Rouge Parish, Souliere attended the Feb. 7 Jefferson Parish School Board meeting where the board terminated its contract with Force Multiplier. Souliere said he’s hoping to meet soon with parish officials there to work out a new deal.
Souliere said he and other Canadian investors "have lost millions" remaining in the business, but said it's a testament to the potential they see.
”They developed a very good technology," he said. “They just need responsible adults behind the wheel.”
Advocate staff writer Faimon Roberts contributed to this story.