By Don Russell
Philadelphia Daily News
July 1, 2003
AN OBSCURE legislative provision engineered by House Speaker John Perzel gives one of his campaign contributors a leg up on running the city’s lucrative red-light traffic camera system.
The company, Affiliated Computer Services of Dallas, already receives $8 million a year for data processing services at the Perzel-controlled Philadelphia Parking Authority.
Now, the politically active firm stands to boost those revenues substantially, thanks to six words inserted in the state law that legalized the traffic surveillance cameras in Philadelphia.
The provision was written amid an aggressive campaign by the company to exert its influence in Harrisburg and Philadelphia. In addition to contributing at least $5,000 to Perzel’s campaign fund, ACS and its corporate predecessor, Lockheed Martin IMS:
- Paid the state’s most prominent lobbyist $175,000 to promote pro-camera legislation and other corporate interests in Harrisburg.
- Bankrolled an “independent” safety-advocacy organization that testified on behalf of the cameras before Philadelphia City Council.
- Through its employees, contributed more than $75,000 to Gov. Rendell’s election campaign and about $55,000 to Mayor Street.
- Hired a key former member of Philadelphia city government.
The firm’s efforts paid off last in May when City Hall legalized the controversial red-light cameras under a three-year pilot program.
Buried inside the legislation is a stipulation that photographs collected by the city’s new automated red-light-enforcement system “must be 35-millimeter film only.”
So-called “wet-film” cameras are regarded in the industry as increasingly obsolete, replaced in many cities by cheaper, more reliable digital technology.
Indeed, though ACS does offer digital cameras, it is widely known in the industry as the only remaining proponent of wet-film cameras.
Company officials and Perzel say the law was not written to favor ACS.
Yet, it clearly eliminates ACS’ biggest competitors, who have already converted to digital technology.
“We’re now doing digital strictly… ,” said Aaron Rosenberg of Redflex Traffic Systems of Culver City, Calif., which just beat out ACS for a contract to install digital cameras in Chicago.
“I find it interesting that Philadelphia would look for wet film strictly,” Rosenberg said. “That’s quite contrary to common opinion and advancement in technology.”
Tim O’Leary, executive vice president for Peek Traffic Inc., of Sarasota, Fla., said, “I think we’d let it pass. We wouldn’t want to go back to the wet film.”
Because of the way the legislation is written, O’Leary said, “Philadelphia is basically shooing-in ACS.”
Other industry experts agreed with that assessment, saying that legislation typically does not specify the type of camera system to be installed.
“That’s unusual, exceedingly rare,” said George Frangos, who oversees one of the nation’s leading red-light camera programs in Howard County, Md. “It sounds like a little lobbying going on…
“If you’re starting up a new system, it makes no sense to go with wet film.”
On the advice of…
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for Perzel’s office, said the legislation “wasn’t written for a single company, that is not the case.”
“John Perzel doesn’t put forward legislation because people contribute to his campaign,” Miskin said.
“People contribute to John because they believe in him or what he’s doing. Anybody who thinks otherwise is really off-base or wrong.”
Perzel wouldn’t comment himself.
Meanwhile, City Councilman Frank Rizzo, sponsor of an identical city ordinance, said he was only following the Legislature’s lead when he included the 35 mm mandate in his bill.
“We didn’t get involved in the technology. I think we got it from Harrisburg,” Rizzo said. “I was so enthusiastic about getting the legislation through that I wasn’t picayune as to why they picked wet film.”
A spokesman for ACS said the firm provided advice on red-light cameras to the Parking Authority before the law was enacted. But the company, which also provides digital cameras in some cities, said the legislation was not written to favor the company.
“There are a number of different vendors who can make wet film,” said Maury Hannigan, an ACS vice president. “Wet film is the prudent technology. It’s been out there 20 years.”
Who is ACS?
Founded in 1988, Affiliated Computer Services has become an increasingly important player in a range of public-policy issues related to its data management contracts with federal, state and local agencies.
According to the ACS Web site, the corporation processes half of the nation’s child-support and Medicaid payments, manages E-ZPass systems for many highways, and services $55 billion in federal student loans. It has contracts with the U.S. Postal Service, NASA and the White House.
In 2002, ACS reported more than $3 billion in sales.
ACS entered the red-light camera industry in 2001 with its purchase of the information management division of Lockheed Martin Corp. for $825 million. That division draws its roots to a private firm established in the 1980s by John Brophy, who served as a parking consultant to the city of Philadelphia. Brophy is now president of ACS’s State and Local Solutions division.
ACS says it now administers 80 percent of North America’s red-light camera systems.
The Lockheed purchase also brought ACS more than $4 million a year in contracts at Philadelphia Traffic Court, the Fire Department and the Bureau of Adjudication. It also collects more than $8 million a year in ticket processing fees from the Parking Authority.
How This Came About
It is the Parking Authority, despite the lack of any expertise in traffic enforcement, that will administer the red-light cameras and collect the $100 fines from violators.
City officials have not said how much revenue they expect the program will generate. But experience in other cities suggests red-light cameras could reap $1 million a month or more.
The meter-maid agency’s expansion of powers began in 2001, when Perzel, R-Philadelphia, staged a legislative takeover that wrested control of the agency from city Democrats. The next year, the agency took over the city’s Live Stop towing program and regulation of the city’s 1,600 taxicabs.
Its administration of the city’s new red-light camera program came through another Perzel-backed legislative maneuver last summer.
City and state officials had been talking about red-light cameras for years, and in 2001 a bill authorizing their use began working its way through the legislature. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, said nothing about the type of cameras to be deployed.
In the months after the camera bill was introduced, Lockheed and then ACS spent $175,910 on lobbyists in Harrisburg, according to state Ethics Commission records.
The money went to the state’s best-connected lobbying firm, S.R. Wojdak & Associates. The firm is headed by Stephen R. Wojdak, a former state representative and a frequent financial contributor to political candidates, including Rendell, Mayor Street and scads of state legislators.
Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for the lobbying firm, cautioned that Wojdak went to bat for ACS on more than just red-light cameras.
“Wojdak represents them on a wide range of issues,” Feeley said.
Meanwhile, ACS strengthened its connections in the city by hiring former Philadelphia managing director Joseph Martz. Martz is now senior vice president and managing director in charge of the ACS division that manages red-light camera systems.
Under city law, Martz was banned from lobbying in Philadelphia for a year after he left the Street administration in December 2001. Though that ban has expired, Martz has “recused himself from any involvement with the city” in regard to red-light cameras, according to ACS spokeswoman Janis Langley.
Langley said that Martz “didn’t lobby the state, but he did provide factual information on a variety of questions.”
Martz did not return a phone call to comment.
(ACS is known in the industry for hiring ex-government officials as executives. For example, Maury Hannigan, the company’s most visible spokesman on behalf the cameras, is a former commissioner of the California Highway Patrol. Hannigan also hosted the TV series “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol” and appeared in the 1998 Leslie Nielsen farce, “Wrongfully Accused.”)
The Perzel Treatment
In the year after it was introduced, the Greenleaf camera bill moved slowly through the Senate with not a word about 35 mm film.
Then, in June 2002, ACS’ prospects gained a sudden, dramatic boost.
Out of the blue, another, unrelated Senate bill – one to increase penalties for motorists who repeatedly drive without a license – underwent the Perzel treatment, sources said.
The bill, Senate Bill 238, was sent to the House appropriations committee, where Perzel – then the state House Republican majority leader – wields considerable influence. There, it was radically amended to launch a pilot red-light camera program in Philadelphia. In addition to giving the Perzel-controlled Parking Authority power to administer the program, the amendments stipulated that cameras must be 35 mm only.
Greenleaf’s red-light camera bill was abandoned and SB238, sponsored by state Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks, was adopted.
State Rep. Richard Geist, R-Blair, told the Daily News it was he, not Perzel, who actually wrote the provision. “I wanted to designate wet film because anything else could be tampered with,” said Geist, who heads the House Transportation Committee. Perzel’s involvement, he said, was “little, or next to none.”
Numerous other sources insisted it was Perzel who was behind the provision.
“I was told at the time that was done at the majority leader’s request,” said Tomlinson aide Jim Cawley.
Perzel’s own Web site says he “authored” the legislation.
On the House floor, several legislators called the measure a political “power grab” by Perzel, designed to increase patronage at the Parking Authority. No one raised any questions about the 35 mm provision, however.
Last October, the bill was signed into law by then-Gov. Mark Schweiker.
In the next months, City Council – which would have to pass its own version of the bill – held hearings on the measure to bring cameras to Philadelphia.
Among those testifying in support of the bill was Leslie Blakey, executive director of the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running.
The campaign describes itself as “an independent advocacy initiative focused on both the national and grass-roots levels.” Blakey told City Council that the campaign is “industry-funded,” but she did not reveal its connection with ACS.
In fact, the Washington, D.C., organization was founded on behalf of the company’s predecessor, Lockheed Martin IMS. In an interview last month with the Daily News, Blakey said that until recently the campaign was fully funded by ACS.
Campaign literature also credits ACS employees with producing research in support of red-light cameras.
Blakey declined to say how much the company contributes to the cause and said one other camera company, Redflex, now provides financial support.
Nine days after Blakey’s testimony, City Council adopted its own version of the red-light camera bill, including the wet-film provision.
Two weeks later, Mayor Street signed the bill into law.
A no-bid situation
ACS is not guaranteed the city’s red-light camera contract, but the wet-film provision does makes it difficult at best for others to compete.
For example, Nestor Inc., the Rhode Island company that just landed a contract to provide red-light surveillance for the state of Delaware, said it can’t bid on the Philadelphia contract because it uses only video cameras.
Perzel spokesman Miskin named three companies that he said could handle the job:
TransCore of Hummselstown, Pa.
TransCore officials said the company has converted almost entirely to digital systems. “Wet film is like someone asking for one of those old Bell and Howell movie cameras your father used for home movies… ,” said Jim Tuton, senior vice president of TransCore. “It’s mainly for customers around the world who don’t have any infrastructure for digital technology. We wouldn’t bid on it unless it was absolutely, positively necessary.”
Gatsometer of the Netherlands
Gatsometer does not administer red-light camera systems in America. Its wet-film cameras are used primarily by ACS.
Traffipax Inc., of Columbia, Md.
Traffipax also supplies cameras to ACS. It operates Howard County, Md.’s, wet-film system, but it, too, is moving toward digital systems. Philadelphia’s 35 mm requirement “certainly takes some of the players out of the market,” said Traffipax Vice President Rob Kerr, thus putting “ACS into a better position” to win the bid. Kerr said Traffipax intends to bid on the city contract nonetheless.
So, why do wet-film advocates favor the older technology?
Miskin said Perzel backed the provision because 35 mm film is “more secure.”
“They wanted wet film because of possible tampering,” Miskin said. The photographs, he noted, are “dated and timed.”
Richard Dickson, the Parking Authority official who will oversee the red-light camera program, offered two other reasons for preferring wet film:
- PRIVACY CONCERNS. Digital cameras can be controlled remotely, to be used improperly as surveillance devices, he said.
- BETTER PHOTOGRAPH RESOLUTION. Wet film is clearer, allowing more accurate reading of license plates.
Numerous experts, including ACS competitors and government officials, dismissed those arguments.
“Digital is the way to go,” said Jim Irvin, director of public works in Howard County.
“We started off with wet film, but we’re changing to digital because it’s more functional,” Irvin said.
He and others noted that wet-film systems are far more costly in the long run because they require someone to physically change the camera’s film canister every day, and then send the film to be processed. Digital systems can relay photographs instantly.
Even the operator of New York City’s expansive 10-year-old wet-film system, Mulvihill Intelligent Control Systems, acknowledged that the red-light camera industry is leaning toward digital.
“The bottom line is…film resolution [and] tampering used to be a legitimate issue,” said John Petrozza, president of Mulvihill. “But that really is no longer the case. We’re moving toward digital, too.”
“We have about 750 wet-film cameras, it’s a proven technology,” said Hannigan.
“I think digital cameras are the emerging technology. If you’re going to have a pilot program, I would think you should go with the proven technology.”