Maryland’s failed state-run Obamacare health exchange and many of its local speed camera programs have something green in common — millions of dollars in contributions from a company with political ties to former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Xerox State & Local Solutions, which bought automated camera company Affiliated Computer Services in 2010, won a $6.9 million contract from the health exchange in 2012 to work on computer interfaces, state records show.
Three years earlier in 2009, ACS dispatched 11 lobbyists — including a former Democratic Speaker of the House Casper Taylor, and top former O’Malley aide, Steve Malone, to lobby for a speed camera-authorizing law in Annapolis. ACS’ former president of its State and Local Solutions division and his family members have contributed tens of thousands to O’Malley and other key Maryland Democrats, according to Maryland Ethics Commission data.
Maryland legislators approved the O’Malley administration-requested law in 2009, creating in the process a system that gave the state, cities and camera makers slices of the ticket revenue.
“They’re all well connected,” said Will Foreman, owner of Eastover Auto Supplies in Oxon Hill, Maryland, and a vocal critic of speed cameras. “It’s perfectly legal. They do what’s allowable by law. But the whole thing stinks.”
Almost immediately, ACS began contracting with major jurisdictions, like the city of Baltimore and Montgomery County. “Grassroots” campaigns, like “Slow Down for Baltimore County Schools,” sprung up in support of speed cameras.
Kearney O’Doherty Public Affairs, a firm started by two O’Malley administration alumni, eventually had to confirm on its Facebook page that ACS backed the group after local news outlets exposed the connection.
Foreman’s trouble with speed cameras began in 2010, when two Forest Heights cameras ticketed his company drivers at least 60 times. Foreman discovered, using a little math, that the cameras were ticketing his drivers for speeding when they were actually traveling below the speed limit.
Forest Heights more than doubled its $2 million budget in a town with 2,500 residents the year it introduced the cameras. So, Foreman took his fight to Annapolis.
Foreman first encountered state-level government when, as a student at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, then-Gov. Marvin Mandel sat down with him for 45 minutes to discuss concerns about the college administration and sent investigators to campus the next day, he said. He hoped things would be similar this time.
“It was fascinating, so I was thinking that this is the way the government works,” Foreman said.
Foreman found O’Malley and state lawmakers of both parties weren’t nearly so receptive or responsive. One legislative committee allotted him 60 seconds to speak, giving law enforcement, local government and camera company representatives as much time as they wished, he said.
The experience soured his view of government and the governor.
“I voted for him twice,” Foreman said about O’Malley. “I would never vote for him again, because of the fact that he had no interest in getting to the bottom of this,” Foreman said. “… He was responsible for (speed cameras), and there was no effort whatsoever.”
Maryland isn’t unique in its ties between big camera companies and state and local politicians.
Critics say the top automated camera companies — ACS, American Traffic Solutions and Reflex Traffic Systems — and governments across the country share the incentive to operate speed cameras in as many locations as possible.
“When you privatize the power to issue public fines, there is a lot of potential for corruption,” said Phineas Baxandall, a senior policy analyst with the left-of-center U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Sometimes, that collaboration between government and big business turns criminal.
The former CEO of Redflex Traffic Systems and a Chicago official were sentenced to prison last month in a cash-for-contracts scheme. Chicago boasted the largest red-light camera program in the country, with about 300 cameras.
Baxandall analyzed speed and red-light camera companies’ contracts with cities across the country in a 2011 report.
“Too many cities wrongly sign away power to ensure the safety of citizens on the roads when they privatize traffic law enforcement,” Baxandall said in his report. “Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety.”
The top camera companies have strong campaign donation and lobbying components.
Camera companies have thwarted bills to end red-light cameras year after year in Florida, where localities generate about $100 million a year from their camera programs.
American Traffic Solutions has donated $1.1 million to state-level campaigns over the last 11 years, according to data from the Institute for Money in State Politics.
Arizona-based Redflex boasted about its lobbying power in its 2010 annual report.
“In Arizona, an opposition group attempted to get an all-out road safety camera ban on the ballot for November 2010,” Redflex said. “We undertook an extensive grassroots and media effort, including the support of the creation of the Safer Arizona Roads Alliance. The ban initiative failed to gain sufficient support to be placed on the November ballot.”
Redflex says they’re just trying to promote safety.
“Just like every other company in our industry, Redflex works to make sure policymakers know the facts about the safety record of photo enforcement as they consider how to craft policies that save lives on our roads and highways,” Redflex CEO Michael Finn said.
“It’s been more than two years since Redflex learned about the illegal actions of a few individuals. Those individuals are no longer with the company. Redflex has new leadership, new systems and new policies. The new Redflex proudly serves 170 communities around the country, and we lead the industry in how public-private partnerships should be managed,” he said.
Private citizens like Foreman, however, don’t have the time or resources to hire huge teams of lawyers in court or lobbyists at the state capital.
“I don’t have the time or energy to fight the fight,” Foreman said.