On a bleak, bitter-cold morning six weeks ago, Carol Shepard entered her office at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department headquarters and greeted fellow workers with news that she'd dropped her reading glasses in the toilet.
As Christmas carols sounded in the background, Shepard's assistants struck up a playful discussion of the non-flushables they, too, accidentally let slip into the latrine over the years.
If only Shepard's announcement earlier that morning had generated similar interest.
Twenty minutes prior to her bathroom mishap, Shepard stood before the Board of Police Commissioners and quietly recommended that American Traffic Solutions (ATS) be awarded a contract to bring traffic-surveillance cameras to city street corners.
As the board's procurement officer, Shepard argued that while the Scottsdale, Arizona-based firm had not submitted the lowest bid, the fact that the company recently installed a camera system in nearby Arnold influenced her decision.
Without further ado, the five-year contract for St. Louis received unanimous approval. No board member, including Mayor Francis Slay, asked any follow-up questions.
Following repeated queries from the Riverfront Times, however, the deal with ATS has also found its way into the toilet. The Board of Police Commissioners late last month revoked its verbal agreement with ATS, conceding that the state agency had failed to adhere to its own written guidelines when it awarded the multimillion-dollar contract. Specifically, board commissioner Major Paul Nocchiero confirmed to the Riverfront Times that Shepard did not assemble a selection committee to determine which of the five competing companies were best qualified for the job.
Shepard concedes that she never called references for any of the vendors, including ATS, nor did she review any of the technology employed by ATS or its rivals. She did not even make the twenty-minute drive to inspect ATS' system in Arnold, which last August became the first and only city in Missouri to photograph the license plates of vehicles that run red lights.
Shepard doesn't know who drew up the highly technical, eleven-page request for proposals (RFP) she used to arrive at her decision. Competing camera companies say specifications in that RFP favored the type of technology used by ATS, while disqualifying other vendors.
It is also unclear who drafted the ordinance authorizing the city to use the video surveillance equipment. Under intense lobbying from the mayor's office, the bill sailed through the St. Louis Board of Aldermen last October, becoming law in just two weeks. The ink on the ordinance was hardly dry when, a few days later, the police department put the contract out for bid. In doing so, it gave just ten days to respond and promised to name a winner by mid-December.
At the time, the aggressive schedule left many vendors questioning the city's rush. Now those vendors suspect the city deliberately tailored the ordinance and bid requirements to favor ATS.
"The process was totally unusual, especially when you look at how other major cities bid these projects out," says Mark Etzbach, regional sales director for Redflex Inc., one of the companies that failed to land the St. Louis contract. "Chicago, for example, did twelve months of due diligence before they chose a camera system.
"In St. Louis you had just ten days to respond. There were no oral presentations and no site visits. The public often perceives red-light cameras as Big Brother, so there's generally a lot of sensitivity around them, and cities really do their homework."
To hear the story in Francis Slay's office, the city's push for traffic cameras commenced on December 21, 2004. That's the day a hit-and-run driver sped through a stoplight on McCausland Avenue in Dogtown and killed 82-year-old Eunice Felder. Newspaper articles described Felder as a vivacious tap dancer who'd recently earned a gold medal for her skills in the Senior Olympics.
"That's pretty much what started it," recalls Jeff Rainford, Slay's chief of staff. "After that accident, the mayor inquired about the camera technology, and we put it on the legislative agenda."
In early 2005, Rainford says, the mayor began lobbying Jefferson City lawmakers for legislation to permit the use of cameras statewide. When the bill failed in the General Assembly last spring, the administration went looking for ways to enact local legislation.
Eager to help was American Traffic Solutions, which set its sights on Missouri last March. Leading the charge was Jay Specter, then a consultant with the company.
"If you're the first person in, you're going to take the whole state," Specter explains. "You have a system in the ground, and administrators from other municipalities can come and look at it. They think: 'If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for us.' It's simple human nature."
Red-light cameras have been in use in Europe for 40 years. In 1994, the same year ATS was founded, New York City became the first municipality in the United States to install the cameras. But only in recent years, with the advent of digital photography, has the technology really taken hold stateside. Today some 140 communities in 20 states use the equipment.
"We're very passionate about our business," says ATS president Jim Tuton. "It's not often that you get to be on the front end of multibillion-dollar business curve that delivers public safety and a major social benefit. I'm proud of that."
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.
Aboussie did not attend. "She doesn't leave the office. People come to her," Specter says.
After he wrapped up his hourlong sales pitch, Specter says, Mokwa stopped Dueker and him in the hallway.
"Mokwa said, 'We'll get this done for you. If Joyce wants it done, we'll take care of it,'" Specter recalls. "He also said that the police department would put out the RFP because it would be easier that way."
Mokwa says he doesn't recall that conversation; neither does Dueker.
Rainford confirms ATS was the only camera vendor to meet with the mayor's staff, and the only company to request such a meeting.
"It's not unusual for a company to come to us and say, 'We have something to make your city better,'" says the mayor's chief of staff. "That's what ATS did. For the competitors to suggest that that is somehow nefarious, I'd tell them they have a screw loose. After the meeting we thanked ATS for their time and said we'd look into it. Does that mean ATS gets the job? No. We told them it would have to go out for public bid."
Still, the entire process from drafting legislation to settling on a vendor took a mere six months, earning St. Louis the distinction of being one of the fastest urban cities to approve and arrange for installation of red-light cameras.
In Houston, by contrast, lawmakers spent years trying to pass legislation to secure cameras. With the final hurdle cleared last winter, Texas' largest city began a months-long process of reviewing vendors, going so far as to require competing companies to install test systems at various intersections.
In Chicago, meanwhile, Alderman Thomas Allen says it took nearly six months of public hearings and political wrangling before the Windy City signed off on traffic cameras. Chicago then spent nearly a year reviewing vendors before installing the first devices in 2004.
Apprised of the stepped-up schedule in St. Louis, Allen exclaims, "Whoa! That sounds like old-time Chicago politics. What's up with that?"
Even as the company was laying the civic groundwork in St. Louis, ATS was courting a smaller, less bureaucratic market: the city of Arnold. Working with the chief of police and the city attorney, the ATS consultants successfully steered the requisite ordinance through the city council in a single day last June. The following month, ATS won the contract.
"Of course, we were in contact with [ATS] when drafting the ordinance," confirms Arnold City Attorney Bob Sweeney, who says he received draft legislation for the ordinance from Stinson Morrison Hecker attorney Jane Dueker.
Competitors say the ATS-drafted ordinance was subtly slanted to help ensure that Arnold would award the contract to ATS. The key element: a provision in the ordinance requiring that the city choose a vendor that uses a single camera to record red-light runners. Several of ATS' rivals rely on multiple cameras. Though it is a matter of debate as to which technology is better, ATS' competitors say it's extremely unusual to place specific requirements of this kind in an ordinance.
"That's an issue for the selection committee to decide," asserts Redflex's Mark Etzbach. "To have those requirements in the ordinance is extremely odd."
Sweeney counters that if the ordinance was biased in ATS' favor, none of the losing bidders ever complained about it.
"I'm ignorant and remain ignorant to this day on the technological aspects of these cameras," Sweeney admits. "Nothing is perfect, but I believe we drafted and adopted the ordinance in the right way."
Dueker, meanwhile, defends placing the single-camera provision in the ordinance she provided Sweeney, claiming evidence gathered from such systems hold up better in court. Besides, she says, it's not as though she forced Arnold to base its ordinance on the draft legislation she provided.
"Municipalities have their own lawyers who can look at the ordinance," Dueker points out. "So it's kind of irrelevant what I put in. If they don't want it, they can take it out."
Last week the city of Springfield approved an ordinance also based on ATS' draft legislation, says Springfield City Attorney Dan Wichmer. The city first learned of ATS, adds Wichmer, when Bob Holden called on its behalf last summer.
Unlike Arnold and Springfield, where city officials freely admit ATS helped draft their ordinances, public officials in St. Louis aren't saying much about how their legislation came about. In fact, they say they don't know.
City Counselor Hageman won't say who authored the ordinance, and refers questions to the mayor's office.
"Who did what over the past year that precisely led to this particular bill, I couldn't tell you," offers Slay chief of staff Rainford.
Dueker says she sent a draft ordinance to the city counselor's office last summer but can't remember whether she followed up with city officials.
Regardless, the mayor's office made the bill a legislative priority and tapped well-connected mover and shaker Lou Hamilton to tout it to elected officials. A private lobbyist on a $2,000-per-month retainer with the city, Hamilton began floating the bill among the Board of Aldermen in early October.
Why the need for a private lobbyist when the mayor's staff includes a full-time lobbyist, Jim Sondermann, at an annual salary of $82,000?
"Because Lou is one of the best," Rainford explains. "When we have very difficult issues, or even moderately difficult issues, we use Lou."
Hamilton evidently did his job well. When Third Ward Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. introduced the bill on October 14, 21 out of 29 board members signed on as co-sponsors, and it was smooth sailing from there.
"The way it was presented to me is that the mayor was on board with this, and it was a good idea for the city," Bosley explains. "Also, the money from this would go back to the city to fund programs for abused women and things like that."
But contrary to Bosley's understanding, Rainford says the city is not expecting any compensation whatsoever from the cameras.
"This isn't supposed to be a high-tech speed trap," says Rainford. "We're going to do this for only the most dangerous of intersections to improve public safety."
One of the few aldermen not to sponsor the bill, board president Jim Shrewsbury says he does not know why the city chose the police department to put the camera contract out for bid.
"The obvious place to bid this would have been the treasurer's department, because this is what they do," Rainford explains. "They handle parking meters, which also go to the general revenue. But we didn't want this to be about revenue. We wanted the program to be about public safety. That's why the police department handled the bid."
Perhaps not coincidentally, it's easier to administer a public bid through the police department than through the city, where a litany of departments must sign off on such a purchase.
In early November, the police department placed a tiny ad in The City Journal, the city-government newsletter that boasts a weekly circulation of 345 copies. No other advertisements announced the request for proposals.
Major Paul Nocchiero, who serves as the final arbiter for police procurements, says the process followed department policy by advertising solely in the Journal and allowing bidders only ten days to respond.
A representative of Traffipax, a multibillion-dollar company based in Germany, says his firm's bid was sent back unopened.
"The procurement officer [Carol Shepard] told me that my bid was not in the right type of envelope," complains Mark Hammer, vice president of sales for Traffipax. "We put 75 man-hours into putting that bid together, and I didn't trust it to a flimsy envelope. I sent it in a box clearly addressed to the right person. The RFP clearly stated that you could send it by way of package, yet the police department rejected it because I didn't have the proper envelope glued onto the box. I never even received the envelope they're talking about!"
Hammer says he sent a letter of protest to Nocchiero, who tersely responded that he stood by Shepard's decision.
"We were meeting with our attorney and were prepared to file a cease-and-desist order," Hammer recounts. "But by then they'd already chosen their winner."
No one at American Traffic Solutions or the city of St. Louis will say how much revenue the cameras will generate, but it's sure to be in the millions of dollars.
Initial plans call for cameras to be installed at ten city intersections, with sites yet to be determined. But the surveillance system will almost certainly increase in scope. Chicago started with 10 cameras and now has 30. New York City has 50 cameras up and running. During a sales pitch in Gallatin, Tennessee, in November, ATS president Jim Tuton said the New York cameras produce 300,000 tickets a year, generating $15 million for the city.
ATS' St. Louis bid calls for the company to take the first $4,000 to $4,600 collected per camera, per month. According to the city, fines will run $75 to $100 per violation. Under the ATS plan, each intersection is to be equipped with a minimum of two cameras in order to monitor cars approaching from more than one direction. The minimum twenty cameras and ATS' lower figure of $4,000 amounts to nearly $1 million in revenue for ATS per year.
A chunk of that change appears earmarked for networking whiz Joyce Aboussie. Aboussie and ATS decline to comment on her consultancy arrangement. Jay Specter says his contract called for a 6 percent cut of the company's Missouri revenue, Aboussie's 3.2 percent. Specter believes that after he was dismissed, ATS directed his share to Aboussie.
But even as ATS hastened to install its first Missouri camera system last summer, not all went as planned. In an August 9 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon voiced strong opposition to the red-light cameras aimed at Arnold.
"I think it's pretty clear these pictures can't be the sole or only evidence to cite drivers for violating state traffic laws," Nixon warned. "A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture in and of itself is not a conviction."
Jay Specter recalls that the article spawned a panic, and that Aboussie arranged a conference call with the ATS team hours after the story hit newsstands. After the meeting, Specter claims, Stinson Morrison Hecker attorney Jane Dueker phoned Nixon's office to stress that the cameras were indeed perfectly legal.
In early September, Specter adds, Aboussie asked Nixon for a private meeting at her south-city office. Specter does not know what transpired at the meeting because he wasn't there, but Nixon has made no public statement about the cameras since.
Nixon declines to comment on whether he met with Aboussie.
"We're not going to confirm any meetings we had on this," says John Fougere, chief spokesman for the Attorney General's office. "His position is still the same as was quoted in the Post-Dispatch."
Along with questions about the validity of using photographs as evidence, legal debate about the cameras in other municipalities has raised privacy issues. But the "Big Brother" aspect of the matter never arose as the red-light bill wended its way through the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.
Pat Connigan, the clerk for the Board of Aldermen, says that might have been because the proposed cameras won't photograph drivers, focusing instead on the rear of the car and specifically the license plate. Furthermore, violations would not result in "points" accruing to a person's driving record, essentially rendering them the equivalent of an expensive parking ticket.
Another reason privacy issues never surfaced might be an October 2005 poll showing that 80 percent of Missouri voters support the use of traffic-surveillance cameras.
Specter says ATS paid for the poll, with Aboussie calling her good friend, nationally renowned pollster John Zogby, to undertake the survey. When the results were published, the Missouri Insurance Coalition, the industry's lobbying arm, was cited as having commissioned the poll. But MIC executive director Calvin Call says his agency didn't pay for it.
As a matter of policy, Zogby does not release client information.
Asked whether she initiated the poll, Aboussie grows testy. "Now we're going to get into what I can and can't do with a respect to a contract I have with ATS," she says. "I can't get into proprietary information."
Another mystery: Who wrote the St. Louis RFP that led police commission procurement officer Carol Shepard to award the contract to ATS?
Slay chief of staff Jeff Rainford says he sent the police commission copies of bid documents from Arnold and Seattle to serve as models in drafting an official St. Louis RFP. But Carol Shepard maintains the RFP upon which she based her decision was supplied, whole cloth, by the mayor's office.
Missing from the Seattle RFP is the provision requiring the winning bidder use a single camera to capture images. That specification can only be found in the Arnold and St. Louis bid requirements.
ATS president Jim Tuton says he wouldn't know. He makes no secret of the fact that his company like its competitors works behind the scenes to drum up municipal support for red-light cameras. Tuton dismisses as "sour grapes" his rivals' complaints that his company manipulates the process to favor ATS.
"I don't know how the cities award the winners, and it's not my business," Tuton says. "One of the reasons we deserved to win [in St. Louis and Arnold] was that we did our homework. We came in and did legal research. This is not unusual. We've done this in many other states. We create legal opinions. We have a qualified, reputable law firm do legal research, and we share that with city attorneys as a matter of course. There's nothing untoward about that."
When he got word that St. Louis' Board of Police Commissioners had thrown out its contract with ATS, Tuton sent the Riverfront Times a statement asserting that his company looks forward to winning the bid the second time around.
"We continue to offer the best technology, with the best results," Tuton writes. "We are confident that we will once again be selected over all other vendors and that ATS will be awarded the contract based on the merits of our product and the value of our offering."
Last month the police commission surrendered the bids it received for the cameras to the mayor's office.
Now in charge of the camera bids is Sam Simon, the city's director of public safety, who will draft a new RFP and assemble a selection committee. This time, Jeff Rainford says, it might take two months for the city to settle on a winner.
"We're going to rebid the whole thing," Rainford confirms. "Yes, the police commission botched the RFP."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.