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Inspector general finds ‘appearance of impropriety’ in ABQ’s no-bid Taser deal

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

City Hall’s top watchdog says Taser International had a “competitive advantage” over other vendors – including access to information not readily available to competitors – when it won a no-bid contract with the Albuquerque Police Department in 2013, according to a report issued late Wednesday.

Inspector General Peter Pacheco also said in the report that his office found “probable violation” by former Police Chief Ray Schultz of city rules against conflict of interest and accepting meals or perks.

But both Mayor Richard Berry’s administration and a committee that oversee the inspector general’s work took issue with those findings.

The Accountability in Government Oversight Committee, a body appointed by city councilors and the mayor, said it was more appropriate to describe the findings as “possible” or “potential” violations, not probable.

And Rob Perry, Albuquerque’s chief administrative officer, said he disagreed with the findings, based on ambiguity over when Schultz really left city employment and how to interpret the city’s conflict-of-interest ordinance.

In any case, the inspector general’s report is the third since late April to slam APD’s dealings with Taser International, which provides body-worn cameras and other equipment for police officers.

State Auditor Tim Keller released his report in April, city internal auditors released theirs in May and Pacheco’s came out Wednesday – delayed at least partly because of the accountability committee’s concerns about his conclusions.

All three agencies worked together after receiving requests last year from City Councilors Dan Lewis, Klarissa Peña and Ken Sanchez. The councilors said they wanted an independent review of how Taser got the no-bid contract and whether it was OK for Schultz to work for the company.

What happens next is unclear. Keller has asked state and local prosecutors to consider whether criminal charges are warranted for “what we believe are very clear violations” of law, and the Attorney General’s Office said it’s investigating.

In a written statement sent to the Journal, Luis Robles, an attorney for Schultz, said Wednesday that the city’s Taser contracts were handled properly under city ordinance and that it was Schultz’s successor, not Schultz himself, who made the final decision.

Taser offered some evidence-collection services for video that no other vendor provided, Robles said, a feature that “clearly meets the definition of a sole-source purchase” in which other bids aren’t necessary.

Robles has said previously that he doesn’t believe the former chief violated the laws cited by Keller.

Consulting for $1,000 a day

Pacheco’s investigation found that Schultz “accepted meals or other gratuities from Taser while still employed by the city.”

That’s a “probable violation,” Pacheco said, of a city rule that prohibits accepting meals and other perks, in some circumstances.

The finding centers on the time Schultz was on early retirement from the city, in late 2013. The former chief, at that point, began consulting for $1,000 a day, plus expenses, for Taser to make presentations and promote the company’s products, although the inspector general didn’t say how much Schultz made altogether.

But Schultz was still under city employment and gaining service credit toward retirement, Pacheco said. Early retirement allows employees to continue to be paid as they take their unused vacation and sick leave.

Perry, the city CAO, contends there was no violation. Schultz had no job duties or access to city resources during early retirement, he said.

“The practical issue … is that retiring employees believe early retirement is just that – ‘retirement,’ ” Perry wrote in a memo to the inspector general.

The accountability committee also took issue with Pacheco’s finding. It said the violation was “possible, but not probable.”

Perry’s memo and the committee’s statements were included as attachments to Pacheco’s report.

The committee cannot require the inspector general to change a report, but it can issue its own “cautionary statement” when it finds a report questionable, as it did in this case.

Conflict of interest?

Pacheco also found that Schultz’s decision to start work for Taser so soon after retirement was a “probable violation” of the city’s conflict-of-interest ordinance.

That law says a former employee cannot, within one year, go on to “represent any person or business in connection with a matter in which the former employee has performed an official act,” unless the CAO allows an exception.

Perry disagreed that there was a violation. The ordinance doesn’t prevent Schultz from working for Taser immediately, Perry said. It just prohibits him from representing Taser in its dealings with the city, he said.

Schultz’s work, however, is directed at other cities, not Albuquerque, Perry said. Robles said that Schultz simply gives presentations on “lessons learned” and that he hasn’t participated in any of Taser’s business with Albuquerque.

The committee said that Schultz’s actions may have been a violation but that the inspector general’s evidence “does not support a conclusion that the violation is probable.”

‘Competitive advantage’

More generally, Pacheco concluded that the no-bid deal has an “appearance of impropriety.”

“From emails and documentation reviewed,” the report said, “it appears that Taser Axon-Flex cameras were the preferred cameras from the beginning.”

Police officials said they tested other vendors’ cameras, but there was “minimal documentation” to support that, the report said.

Pacheco’s office also said Taser was given information not readily available to other vendors – centering on special orders and standard operating procedures APD was working on – that “allowed (Taser) to capture insight on the direction APD was going regarding the implementation of body-worn cameras.”

Pacheco said the “evidence shows that Taser was given a competitive advantage over other vendors.”

Robles, Schultz’s attorney, said that the city tried competing camera equipment, but that it didn’t work properly.

In fact, Robles said, the Police Department carried out “on going testing of officer on-body camera systems for years and had even bought hundreds of other models and used them extensively.”

“Subsequent reviews of the pricing have shown that the city received a system that worked and at a fair price,” Robles said.

Taser representatives have said they believe the company complied with all appropriate ethical guidelines in its dealings with the city. The company cooperated with the investigation.

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