Red-light camera vendor's bribery issue draws Clearwater inquiry

Clearwater pays $12,810 to Redflex to use its red-light cameras at two intersections.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2012)

Clearwater pays $12,810 to Redflex to use its red-light cameras at two intersections.

CLEARWATER — City officials say Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. did nothing improper in 2011 to win its contract with Clearwater to provide three red-light cameras.

But after allegations of bribery involving Redflex surfaced in Florida and several other states, city administrators have requested corporate gift records from the company.

Redflex has been embroiled in controversy across the country since one of its executives filed a lawsuit last fall after he was fired for allegedly bribing Chicago officials. The story was first reported by the Chicago Tribune late last month.

The executive said company policy made no distinction between entertainment expenses and "gratuities and bribes," which he said occurred in "dozens" of municipalities in at least 13 states, including Florida.

Clearwater, Kissimmee and Jacksonville are the only cities in the state that contract with Redflex, whose North American operations are based in Phoenix. Clearwater's three-year, $153,720 yearly contract expires in 2015.

Clearwater's hands are clean, said City Manager Bill Horne.

"Everybody who works for the city knows that's not something we do," Horne said, referring to accepting gifts, perks or bribes. "Nobody wants to go to jail."

Redflex has offered customers an audited report of gifts and gratuities given to government officials or employees since January 2013. The city has requested that report and will ask for similar data extending back to 2011, said Joelle Castelli, a city spokeswoman.

The company didn't respond to a Tampa Bay Times request for comment, but emailed a statement to city officials that was intended for the media.

"We are unaware of any unethical conduct related to our Florida accounts," the statement read, adding that it denied claims made by Aaron Rosenberg, the former executive vice president.

Rosenberg's attorney, James Burr Shields II, didn't return a call for comment.

The Clearwater City Council approved an initial six-month pilot project utilizing Redflex services in November 2011 in a 3-2 vote. At that time, Frank Hibbard was mayor and council members were Bill Jonson, John Doran, Paul Gibson and George Cretekos. Hibbard, Doran and Jonson voted for the contract; Gibson and Cretekos opposed it.

The Redflex representative, Charlie Buckels, acted professionally and never even hinted at a bribe, Hibbard said.

"In a word: no," Doran said when asked if anything improper had occurred or been offered. Doran had been the primary proponent of installing red-light cameras in Clearwater.

Jonson also said no bribes or inappropriate gifts were offered. Cretekos said he had no contact with Redflex. Gibson didn't return a call for comment.

Paul Bertels, the city's traffic operations manager, said Buckels "would have been thrown out of the room" if he'd tried to bribe anyone on the city's three-person staff selection committee.

Bertels, assistant city attorney Rob Surette and police Lt. David Dalton reviewed five bids and selected three firms to come to Clearwater for presentations.

Redflex, said Bertels, was "head and shoulders" above the other two firms. The company tailored its presentation to answer specific questions that had been asked by the city and offered a generous contract, he said.

Eager to expand its operations to the Sunshine State, Redflex previously had avoided Florida because of a sketchy legal and legislative environment for red-light cameras.

"They were trying to get their foot in the door in Florida," Surette said.

Surette and Dalton said nothing illegal was accepted or offered during the negotiations.

Disclosures filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics don't show any gifts received by Clearwater officials or given to them by Redflex.

The city "walked away with a fabulous deal" on the contract, Surette said. Instead of Redflex taking a percentage of each $158 ticket for running a red light, the company receives a $12,810 monthly service payment for the cameras, which are posted at the intersections of Chesnut Street and Fort Harrison Avenue, and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road.

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.

Red-light camera vendor's bribery issue draws Clearwater inquiry 01/31/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 31, 2014 7:38pm]

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