Kaufman’s Costly and Illegal Scandal – Part 1
Following the public pushback over red light cameras across Texas, camera companies, such as American Traffic Solutions (ATS), have turned their attention to counties, rather than cities. Shockingly, several counties engaged these firms in clear violation of state law.
The problem with ATS’s strategy was that the governments they sought to engage do not have the authority to issue civil penalties to enforce local ordinances. Cities are given that authority in the Local Government Code (LGC); that power does not extend to counties. Every civil citation issued to local residents by Kaufman County under the ATS contract was illegal. (LGC 54.012 & 54.044)
ATS targeted rural counties such as Kaufman, Smith, and Hays, appealing to money-hungry County Judges who would support traffic-camera contracts designed to help bolster their revenue. As is often the case in local government, they relied upon complicit District Attorneys and incompetent county lawyers to rubber stamp unlawful contracts.
ATS pursued ten-year contract terms, designed to obligate counties long-term and provide guaranteed revenue streams for the private contractor. If the county signed on the dotted line, their cameras would remain for the entire term, even after a possible state-wide ban on traffic cameras.
In Kaufman County, ATS found County Judge Bruce Wood eager to push a camera contract in April of 2014. He championed the unlawful deal with ATS during a Commissioners Court discussion that ended with more questions than answers.
Many provisions for the contract were still under negotiation when the court voted 3-2 to approve the motion concerning ATS. Much like the discussion, the motion approved by the Commissioners court itself was vague. It approved the agreement with ATS and authorized the “County Judge to review and sign the final Agreement.” The Court voted to approve a 10-year contract they did not even read because it had not yet been finalized.
Commissioners Clark and Manning voted yes, entrusting Wood to make all the “right decisions” and to unilaterally sign the contract. Wood even signed two amendments to the contract without bringing them before the Commissioners court. While the legality of his actions remains unclear, they were, at the very least, highly unethical.
The faith that Commissioners Clark and Manning put into Wood was clearly misplaced.
Wood simply accepted the word of ATS litigator George Hittner that the arrangement was legal. He did not question Hittner when he claimed that ATS’s cameras were being used around the state, even after he backtracked to say only the school bus cameras were being used by a few school districts.
At the time, all other Texas contracts with county governments for school zone cameras were still in negotiation. In fact, most other counties that were approached by ATS rightly rejected their offer, as counties are not authorized by law to issue traffic fines.
In a September 2014 Commissioners court meeting, when citizens and Commissioners questioned the fine print once again, District Attorney Erleigh Wiley washed her hands of the deal, stating, “Don’t be throwing me under the bus” for the contract. She passed blame to her subordinate, openly declaring that she had never personally reviewed the contract.
The DA, the county’s attorney in all legal matters, publicly admitted she had not read a 10-year contract that would obligate the county to millions of dollars in payments. Perhaps if she had read it, she might have realized it was illegal.
Due to Wiley’s incompetence, the illegality of the contract was not recognized until over a year after the program began. In fact, it wasn’t discovered until the county was forced to hire outside council, law firm Wynne and Wynne, to help the county find a path to exit the contract. Wynne and Wynne found that the contract forces Kaufman County to act outside the law.
Wood and Wiley failed to do their due diligence for Kaufman County taxpayers. Their mistake resulted in a $181,000 payment to ATS to exit the unlawful contract. The illegality of the contract also opened the county up to potential litigation from individuals that were the victims of unlawful citations. The total costs from the unlawful and ill-advised contract remains unknown.
The Kaufman scandal raises an interesting question: If a local District Attorney fails to prosecute local officials who clearly violate the law, who in law enforcement is obligated to intervene?
*For more information on the traffic cameras Kaufman deployed, click HERE.