TAMPA (FOX 13) - The University of South Florida and the city of Orlando have each launched ethics reviews, after a FOX 13 investigation raised questions about Taser International’s ties to a body camera research study and the Orlando police officer who ran the agency’s body camera program.
A USF spokeswoman said the university was not aware Officer Brian Cechowski was moonlighting for Taser International while the research study was going on.
"Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention with your recent story regarding possible ethics violations at the Orlando Police Department,” Lara Wade said in an emailed statement to FOX 13. “The university will follow its established processes to determine whether this lack of disclosure impacted the integrity of the study."
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The FOX 13 investigation found that Cechowski, who earns around $94,000 a year as OPD’s technology coordinator, worked for Taser International while the study was ongoing and while the department was preparing to purchase body camera systems.
Cechowski also participated in interviews and presentations alongside USF researchers. Taser International brokered the research study between USF and OPD, according to the university, and provided tens of thousands of dollars' worth of body camera systems -- something that researchers did not disclose in the published study, which found favorable results about the technology.
In an email sent just before the close of business on Monday, Wade said USF’s institutional review board (IRB) was made aware “that the Orlando Police Department would provide participants with Taser International brand cameras” at the beginning of the study. She did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about whether the review board, which primarily monitors research involving human subjects, was aware that Taser International was providing the cameras to OPD.
Taser International later bid on a city of Orlando body camera contract, which is potentially worth a few million dollars in public money.
“We are happy to participate and compete in any process that the agency deems appropriate,” Taser International vice president Josh Isner said in an email, responding to FOX 13’s questions about the reviews.
In response to FOX 13's story, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer ordered a full review of the circumstances surrounding the bid and officers' outside employment. According to OPD and the mayor's office, Chief John Mina completed the initial review, which resulted in the launch of an Internal Affairs investigation and filing a state ethics complaint about Cechowski's employment. In addition to Mina’s involvement, Dyer’s spokeswoman said the city’s legal department and the city administrative officer would be conducting the review.
"These actions are important to helping us answer the questions you have raised," mayoral spokeswoman Heather Fagan wrote in an email to FOX 13, adding that Dyer would not be available for an interview until the investigations were complete.
Emails obtained by FOX 13 show that Cechowski helped Mina prepare for a demonstration of Taser International’s body cameras and their capabilities for city council, in which Mina asked commissioners to approve the purchase of the body cameras. He estimated the cameras would cost close to $2-million in the first few years. Cechowski stood by Mina and answered commissioners’ questions during the meeting last May.
The city of Orlando has now cancelled the current body camera bid process while the city and state review of the issues continue.
“Our initial review indicates that the procurement process wasn't compromised in any way, however in an abundance of caution and to eliminate any questions about the solicitation of body-worn cameras, the city will cancel the current solicitation and reject all proposals,” Fagan said. The city of Orlando received nearly a half-million dollars in federal matching grant funds to purchase the body camera equipment, beating around 200 agencies that also applied for grant money but did not receive it.
After OPD began its initial review into the situation, the department's internal affairs director sent a complaint to the state ethics commission, asking them to specifically investigate Officer Brian Cechowski's employment with Taser International. An identical complaint was filed against Officer Anna Melnick, who works in the motors division.
A public record obtained by FOX 13 shows her supervisors approved her employment with Taser International more than a year ago.
The state ethics commission typically reviews complaints filed by every day citizens.
“Chief Mina has completed an initial review after the issues about outside employment were raised in your story,” OPD said in a statement. “The [state ethics commission] complaint process allows for a completely objective evaluation. In it, the state will conduct its own witness interviews and research.”
Last week, Mina sent a memo to the city’s chief administrative officer about his initial review, which said that OPD did not know about Cechowski’s employment with Taser until he filled out a form to become part of the committee reviewing body camera contract bids.
Cechowski has been transferred out of the technology department and both officers were told to stop working for the vendor while the reviews continue, according to OPD. Both Melnick and Cechowski helped train the Pasco County Sheriff's Office deputies on using their new body camera systems, according to emails obtained by FOX 13. It is not clear how many other agencies they trained.
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State ethics laws prohibit someone who has influence over purchasing decisions from working for a current or potential government contractor.
City ethics rules do, too.
Public records show Cechowski did not have an outside employment form filled out until February 22, after he had been working for the company for more than a year. OPD officers are required to have approval before working for outside vendors; city ethics rules prohibit anyone with influence over buying decisions to take on any work for vendors.
At the time he filled out his outside employment form, his supervisor’s signed off and approved his outside employment. One supervisor noted that he could not participate in the body camera bid process.
OPD’s state ethics commission complaints about Cechowski and Melnick do not mention that the officers’ command staff had approved the outside employment for each of them.
The city is still investigating. Fagan says no timeline has been set for the new body camera bid -- but when it does happen, vendors will have to follow stricter guidelines, which will include disclosing personal or business relationships with any city employees.
"Additionally, we are currently reviewing and revising the city's outside employment approval process,” Fagan said.
Read the emails obtained for this story (PDF files):