This is a guest post by Benjamen Ober, a student at Duke University in the Terry Sanford Institute for Public Policy.
Tim Shingara does not look like a man you would expect to be working for the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP). His shoulder-length hair, thick mustache, tight black t-shirt, torn jeans and intense stare exude the image of a motor-head, not a radio-telecommunications specialist lab technician, specializing in advanced radar operations.
Shingara probably looks the part of a Harley enthusiast because he is a Harley enthusiast. He is a police lab technician by day and a husband, father and biker by night. This more or less average guy’s world was turned upside-down as he was thrust into the midst of a Pennsylvania State Police corruption scandal dubbed “Radargate” by watchdog groups.
J. Michael Sheldon’s Lucky Find
Radargate and Shingara’s uphill battle against the PSP began on November 29, 2002. Ironically, Shingara himself had nothing do to with the beginning of the fiasco.
On that Friday evening, the day after Thanksgiving, Brent Hanlin was hurrying to his father’s hunting cabin in Perry County, Pennsylvania. It was getting late, and Hanlin wanted to get settled in for the weekend before rifle season opened on Monday morning. He was traveling northeast along PA route 533 in his 1994 VW Jetta. Ominous rain clouds darkened the sky and the road was already slick from earlier showers. To make matters worse for Hanlin, the lights on his VW dashboard had been flickering on and off for weeks and finally decided to die, making it difficult to gauge his speed.
As Hanlin passed an intersection, a State Police patrol car began trailing him from a distance. Hanlin noted the patrol car, but continued on without a second thought—he was the type of guy to drive 43 in a 45 zone “just to be safe.” Minutes later, the Trooper turned on his flashing lights and Hanlin realized that he was being pulled over.
The encounter that ensued was not pretty. Hanlin was informed by PSP Trooper Gregory Styers that he was driving in excess of seventy miles per hour. “Impossible,” thought Hanlin. Sure, Hanlin, might have been speeding. He could not exactly tell because his darkened dashboard. But seventy miles per hour? Fat chance. He curtly informed the Trooper that he was mistaken. The situation got worse when Hanlin could not produce either a registration or proof of insurance. Styers decided to detain Hanlin for the evening for a traffic violation and resisting arrest.
Hanlin hired prominent local attorney J. Michael Sheldon to represent him in court. Hanlin insisted that he was going forty-five miles per hour at the most. “Sure,” thought Sheldon, “that’s what they all say.” While driving home from his office, Sheldon was suddenly struck by a new thought: maybe it was impossible to hit seventy on the stretch where Hanlin was pulled-over, especially given the road conditions in a 1994 Jetta.
Sheldon visited the scene and determined that it was unlikely that Hanlin could have reached seventy miles per hour. On a flier, he contacted PSP headquarters and asked to speak with their lab expert on radar gun performance.
Enter Tim Shingara. Shingara was the local expert identified by the State Police for Sheldon to interview. Sheldon quickly discovered that he hit a legal jackpot. Shingara openly admitted that State Police radar guns are unreliable. Internal memos noted problems with the radar guns, especially the Genesis model guns, as early as 2002. On August 2, 2003, Corporal William LaTorre officially filed a memo to his superior noting that everything he aimed the gun at was registering seventy-eight miles per hour—including inanimate objects. A tree, rock, road, sky and moving car all registered seventy-eight.
Six months later, Sergeant Thomas Decker reported a similar problem to his commanding officer. According to Sgt. Decker, the Genesis gun would suddenly jump from the mid-fifties to the low-eighties without cause. Later, even after Radargate broke in Philadelphia and Harrisburg newspapers, field officers were reporting problems with the Genesis guns.
Shingara was subpoenaed as an expert witness in Hanlin’s case. According to Shingara’s testimony, the Genesis radar gun registered an “alternator whining” when plugged into a Trooper’s vehicle. Under intense electrical strain, such as the use of a radar gun, the alternator runs constantly in an effort to recharge the car battery. The constant running of the alternator produces an electrical disturbance that is captured by the Genesis gun. Out of the alternator whining, Radargate was born.
Radargate was potentially explosive for PSP. The costs would be extraordinary, both in public-image and sheer economic terms. The State Police own nearly one thousand radar guns, more than half of which are the Genesis model, produced by Decatur Electronics. Internal records show that State Troopers use radar guns in roughly eighty-seven percent of speeding tickets.
Records, do not, however, indicate which radar gun was used for issuance of each ticket. Thus, no one truly knows how many of the PA State Police issued tickets might be invalidated if the Genesis model is proven inaccurate. Since the first internal memos filed by Troopers in late 2002, motorists have been issued approximately two hundred thousand tickets—incurring total fines of more than fifteen million dollars.
The contracting arrangements between Decatur and the State Police are baffling at best. Decatur was chosen and the Genesis model selected because Decatur was the lowest-bidder for the radar contract. This is hardly atypical, as it is normal for state government agencies to award contracts to the lowest bidders. Shingara’s attorney Don Bailey thinks the problem is that government agencies such as PSP have budgetary pressures in conflict with public safety concerns. Bailey bluntly stated in an interview, “The Genesis II gun was a cheap gun.”
At the same time as Decatur’s radar gun bid, Ford Motors was contracted in early 2002 to supply new squadron cars for PSP. The “cost-effective” Crown Vic model was chosen, in spite of its low battery power. The Governor’s Office was thrilled with Ford’s Crown Vic bid, as PSP was saving the state thousands of dollars. For most cars, battery drain is a relatively minor problem, but squadron cars generally run a radio unit, laptop, lights, A/C, cell phone charger, and radar gun simultaneously. Drain on the battery can have dangerous consequences, such as stalling in the middle of traffic.
The government mismanagement of Radargate goes even deeper. Decatur Electronics acknowledged the problems in the Genesis model and recommended an easy solution to State Police brass. Decatur offered to fix all of the Genesis guns for free, absorbing a loss of thirty thousand dollars. Decatur was hoping to avoid public embarrassment and loss of reputation in the market. They could offer a solution and save face, as no one would blame Decatur for not predicting how the Genesis model would interact with future car models.
PSP, however, turned down Decatur’s offer to fix all of the units for free. According to Shingara’s lawyer, Don Bailey, the higher-ups of the State Police wanted to cover up any wrongdoing. If the State Police were found guilty of using faulty radar, the “implications [would be] enormous and quite significant cost wise,” said Bailey. The Governor’s office would inevitably respond by distancing themselves from the top officials in the Police Department.
In all likelihood, the administrative officials at the helm of the State Police would lose their jobs—and potentially jeopardize their mandatory service for the State pension plan.
Bailey, never a man to mince words, candidly asserts, “The reason for any kind of a cover-up of a bureaucratic mistake of any kind is very simple: careers are on the line…gotta get my career, my pension, gotta get outta here sorta thing…They were willing to let bad tickets be written…Probably the leadership at the top of the State Police doesn’t want to write bad tickets. It’s not that they want to do that or get any pleasure out of it. But the issue is, ‘How is my career going to be affected?’”
According to Bailey, the institutional pressure of budget politics and lack of government oversight created circumstances that lead to the organizational panic in which the police turned down Decatur’s simple, free, and easy solution in favor of a cover-up.
Part of the cover-up, in Bailey’s eyes, was a phony study on the accuracy of the Genesis radar gun. In response to Shingara’s testimony in the Hanlin case, the State Police commissioned a study on Genesis radar guns performed through a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. After the study was concluded, the State Police issued multiple press releases indicating that the radar guns had proven consistent and trustworthy beyond a shadow of a doubt. This seemed to assuage the public, as most citizens and media outlets were willing to accept these conclusions.
Unfortunately, it appears that State Police leaders were fudging the truth. Professor Marlin Mickle, the lead experimenter at the University of Pittsburgh, was unavailable for comment in this article, but has elsewhere claimed that the tests conducted in his department were neither conclusive nor aimed at gauging radar accuracy under field conditions.
Mickle says that the tests reflect Genesis radar performance in the laboratory, but the accuracy results do not necessarily transfer to the real world. When subpoenaed by Bailey, Mickle claimed that the State Police had not provided him any background on the on-going legal battle, nor suggested a field test versus a laboratory test. At any rate, police officials could breath a sigh of relief, as the momentary scandal of Radargate had passed.
When the dust had cleared from the Mickle study and the public was placated, PSP turned its sights on Shingara, according to Bailey. Shingara was removed from radar detail, which was both a financial blow and a slap in the face professionally. Shingara was denied additional assignments at work, meaning that he went to work for months with absolutely nothing to do.
In Bailey’s experience, this is a common tactic of PSP officials to isolated and control whistleblowers (public employees who speak out against corruption or malpractice from within the department).
Over the next several months, it became increasingly clear to Shingara that he needed legal representation, prompting him to hire Bailey to sue PSP for unlawful retribution. In addition to being removed from radar detail and assigned no work, Shingara complained of other retaliatory measures, such as withheld promotions and subjugation to “an unfair internal investigation,” according to the lawsuit. Ultimately, Shingara claimed that the police were looking for an opportunity to fire him.
Bailey built a case focused on First Amendment violations by the State Police, which was subsequently filed in the U.S. Third Circuit. According to Bailey, Shingara’s case is a clear-cut example of First Amendment violation in the workplace. Shingara observed a problem in PSP that defrauded the public and compromised the integrity of the State Police. When J. Michael Shelton subpoenaed him, Shingara testified to problems within PSP.
In an interview, Bailey was quick to point out that Shingara had no economic motive for testifying against PSP. Shingara was not guilty of libel, as both internal memorandums and independent studies have vindicated his version of Radargate.
While Radargate was being argued at the Third Circuit (spring 2005), a related civil rights battle raged in the U.S. Supreme Court. Garcetti v Ceballos worked its way through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and was finally argued by the Supreme Court in October 2005. The majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy (joined by Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito) ruled, “Statements made by public employees pursuant to their official duties are not protected by the First Amendment from employer discipline.” Richard Ceballos, the defendant in Garcetti, had a very simple analysis: “I think government employees will be more inclined to keep quiet [about corruption].”
New Dilemma of State Employees
In lieu of Radargate and the Garcetti ruling, police officers in PSP (and government employees in general) are caught in a bind. In Radargate, for instance, Shingara’s initial report to his superiors was co-authored or verified by at least nine other communications specialists. None of these nine men and women, however, have come forward to corroborate Shingara’s testimony. That is hardly surprising given the financial and professional repercussions reaped by Shingara.
The State Police have made an example of Shingara—“This is what happens to those who break rank and speak out against the State Police.” As if that were not incentive enough to keep quiet about government corruption or malpractice, the Supreme Court has removed even whistleblower protection from state employees.
In the case of Shingara v Skiles et al, the State Police holds all the cards. Institutionally, not many people testify against the State Police because of its reputation and power. PSP is a powerful and influential lobby in Pennsylvania, as evidenced by their Commissioner’s seat on the Governor’s cabinet.
The sheer disparity of power and funds for waging expensive legal battles creates a strong disincentive for insiders to exposure government corruption. PSP officials have virtually unlimited resources in terms of legal counsel. They have a special task force that specializes in handling the legal defense of PSP. Should these lawyers not have enough time or expertise to handle a specific case, it is not uncommon for the State Police to hire outside law firms to run the case.
Conversely, Tim Shingara, although not a poor man, is severely limited in his funds to pay for lawyers. Ironically, his salary as a lab technician was slashed by virtue of his removal from the radar detail and from other special assignments, the very sort of retributive action that led him to sue PSP. Fortunately for Shingara, he has enough money to put up a fight as a radio-telecommunications specialist, unlike many of the young Troopers in the force.
Bailey claims that PSP also has an advantage in terms of public perception. Shingara is fighting against image of the State Police. There is, according to Bailey, a tendency among the general public to view the law enforcement in almost binary terms. The police are the good guys and the accused are the bad guys. It would be impossible for individuals in the State Police, especially high-ranking officers, to be guilty of a systematic cover-up, even in a situation like faulty radar guns.
In the grand scheme of things, malfunctioning radar guns are not that important. After all, the cover-up could be for something much greater, like murder, money laundering, drug running, political corruption, or the like. The troubling fact is that, if Shingara and Bailey are correct, the State Police officials had the desire, ability, and organization to pull a cover-up, even on a relatively minor issue. According to Bailey, the current legal climate (especially post-Garcetti) provides further incentive for public officials to keep silence.
The question raised by Bailey is this: Who will speak out against government abuse if not government insiders? As a State Police officer, Shingara is legally forbidden to speak with any member of the media under the threat of being fired. PSP was unavailable for comment on this article. The University of Pittsburgh also refused to given comment on their study of the Genesis II gun and PSP interpretation of the study. Decatur likewise declined to comment on the accuracy of the Genesis II radar guns.
Radargate thus moves quietly toward its undecided, but impending legal conclusion. In July 2005, the U.S. Third Circuit Court ruled against Shingara. The Third Circuit determined that there was not enough evidence of retribution by PSP. Shingara and Bailey are currently fighting through the appeal process. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals will soon decide whether or not they will hear the case.
Regardless of the decision in the Court of Appeals, the losing side will inevitably appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for final mediation. Shingara v Skiles et al would be an opportunity for the Court to revisit Garcetti.
In light of the outcry by civil rights groups and Congress alike, it is conceivable that the Court will vote to reverse Garcetti. The fates of Tim Shingara, PSP officials, and potentially millions of future whistleblowers thus await judgment.
Benjamen can be contacted at [email protected].