Red Light, Green Light

Did the city deliberately tailor the ordinance and bid requirements to favor only one red-light camera company?

ATS is one of only a handful of companies in North America that install and operate red-light cameras. With systems up and running in New York City, Philadelphia, Calgary and a host of smaller cities, Tuton's company is quickly becoming one of the major players in the industry. In 2005 ATS won 70 percent of the contracts it bid on, Tuton notes. He expects similar success in Missouri.

"Sure, we're [concentrated on Missouri]," he says. "It's for the most part virgin territory."

To win business in Missouri, Jay Specter says, ATS needed a rainmaker, someone who could contact the mayor, the police chief or the attorney general — and get a return call the same day.

Specter found that person in Joyce Aboussie.

A long-time aide to former U.S. Representative Dick Gephardt, Aboussie enjoys a reputation as a behind-the-scenes kingmaker and Democratic Party political operative. Her arm-twisting has at times stirred controversy. The most recent headlines came a few years back when labor leaders called for Aboussie's dismissal from Gephardt's ill-fated 2004 presidential campaign.

Labor chiefs claimed that during a closed-door meeting, Aboussie vowed to prod at least 22 legislators to repeal state employees' collective-bargaining rights if the unions continued their support for rival Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean. Aboussie issued an apologetic statement. Gephardt declined to comment on the incident and kept Aboussie on his campaign staff.

Aboussie now devotes her full-time attention to her political polling firm, Telephone Contact Inc., and her consulting agency, Aboussie & Associates. Both businesses operate out of a nondescript, three-story office building in south St. Louis. It was there, Specter says, that he first met Aboussie.

"I was told she was the best," recalls Specter, who says he was referred to Aboussie in late 2004 by political contacts in Washington, D.C. "She assured me she could control St. Louis and other places, but specifically St. Louis, without any trouble," he claims.

Specter says ATS hired Aboussie in March 2005 as its chief consultant in Missouri, impressed by her overflowing Rolodex of state and local officials. After signing on, Aboussie assembled an influential team of her own, including Ron Battelle, retired chief of the St. Louis County Police Department; Judi Roman, a longtime Democratic activist; and Jane Dueker, an attorney with the downtown law firm Stinson Morrison Hecker and former chief of staff to ex-Governor Bob Holden.

Aboussie also summoned Holden to make sales calls on behalf of the company. More recently, ATS added St. Louis public-relations firm the Vandiver Group.

Notably absent from ATS' team these days is Jay Specter. The company fired him last September. Two months later, Specter filed a breach-of-contract suit against ATS in a federal court in South Carolina, where he lives. Specter now works as a consultant to rival red-light camera firm Redflex.

ATS' Jim Tuton would not shed light on why the company severed its relationship with Specter, saying only that the consultant was "fired for cause."

Specter maintains that he lost his job following an argument with Tuton over the length of the warning period the city of Arnold should set for violations after red-light cameras were installed in that Jefferson County municipality.

After ATS won Arnold, Specter says, Tuton encouraged the city to set a seven-day warning period. The industry norm is 30 days, says Leslie Blakey, director of the advocacy group National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running.

"The object of the business should not be to screw the public," reasons Specter. "That's going to kill red-light programs across the state. The thing is, these systems work. They prevent accidents and save lives. But ATS wanted to make as much money off them as they could. Shortening the warning period is just another way to increase revenue."

Tuton calls the allegation untrue and says his company is more concerned with public safety than with making money.

More disturbing, Specter says, was the way Aboussie and her team were able to manipulate St. Louis and Arnold city officials. Although she was formally retained as a "business consultant," Specter says Aboussie acted as de facto lobbyist.

"You hire a lobbyist to do things a certain way," Specter elaborates. "The purpose is to guide the cities, not force them in the direction you want them to go. Joyce tells people what they're going to do, and they jump to it."

Aboussie disputes Specter's characterization, saying she serves ATS purely as a consultant, not as a lobbyist or political liaison.

"I don't know what you mean by 'political connections,'" Aboussie responds to a question about her role in securing municipal contracts with ATS. "I don't hold office. I was a political director in my earlier life, but I'm not any more. I'm a private citizen with a private corporation. I'm not unlike many people."

One of Aboussie's first orders of business was to introduce ATS representatives to Mayor Slay and his staff. According to the former ATS consultant, Aboussie arranged the May 25 meeting with a phone call to Jeff Rainford.

In attendance in the mayor's conference room that day were Slay and Rainford, along with St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa and St. Louis City Counselor Patricia Hageman. Specter and Dueker were also present.

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