NEW PORT RICHEY (FOX 13) - A dozen deputies at the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office were in the midst of a trial period with Taser body cameras when a salesman sent an invitation to employees, offering two seats to a technology seminar in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“We will also include a 3rd slot if Sheriff Nocco can attend,” salesman Philip Royal wrote in the November 2014 email. “With your commitment to attend (only), we will cover airfare and lodging for all three of your personnel.”
Sheriff Chris Nocco did not attend, but two of his employees involved in the body camera selection process received permission to go. The vendor paid for round trip airfare, lodging at a 4.5-star golf resort and spa, dinners, and receptions.
Nocco told FOX 13 there was nothing inappropriate about the trip.
“Why they went out there was because it was a conference to see what other law enforcement agencies said about it. So, before we wanted to sign it, we wanted to see what they were saying,” he said.
Emails obtained by FOX 13 show the attorney for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office worked out the final details of the agency’s contract with Taser while the employees were at the Scottsdale resort.
A few weeks later, Nocco called a news conference to announce that all his patrol deputies would start recording encounters with citizens.
The demand for body cameras had soared in the months following the August 2014 shooting death of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Missouri – one of several fatal police shootings that came under national public scrutiny and led to calls for transparency in policing.
By late 2014, there were several manufacturers competing for a piece of the body camera and evidence storage market, including companies like Digital Ally, Reveal, L-3, Wolfcom, and Taser International – the company otherwise known for its electronic control weapons.
At the time of Nocco’s news conference, Nocco’s agency began one of the largest deployments of body cameras in Florida – more than 400 deputies would be equipped with the devices.
What was not among the talking points of his December 2014 news conference: Taser International received a no-bid contract worth $2-million over five years.
Nocco didn’t solicit price quotes from other body camera manufacturers.
“If you've got a piece of junk, of course you've got a lower price,” he told FOX 13.
A few months after Nocco announced the body camera contract, he added more cameras and more software-integration systems from Taser International, raising the total public commitment to $2.4-million.
Taser’s contracts for body cameras have come under increasing scrutiny in some cities, after revelations law enforcement officials accepted trips or paid consulting work from the vendor.
The former chief of New Mexico’s largest law enforcement agency has been the subject of the state Attorney General’s criminal investigation for his role in lining up a no-bid $2-million contract with Taser International before taking on work as a consultant with the company.
Earlier this month, Taser rival Digital Ally filed an amended complaint to a copyright lawsuit, alleging the Taser’s business practices with several law enforcement agencies amounted to bribery of public officials. (Taser denies the copyright allegations; the company has until March 8 to file a response.)
As a result of concerns raised about contracts in other cities, FOX 13 Investigates spent six months conducting interviews and reviewing hundreds of public records, including purchase orders, contracts, and emails. The findings, including a number of events that occurred around the time of the contract, raise conflict-of-interest questions in how the no-bid contract was obtained and whether the public’s best interest was at the center of the deal.
There’s nothing in Florida state statute that specifically requires sheriffs to put large purchases out to competitive bid. As elected constitutional officers, they are required to act in good faith and in the best interest of the public.
Competitive bidding is a practice utilized by almost every other public agency, including all state agencies, as a safeguard against conflicts of interest, and appearances of conflicts of interest. It helps agencies ensure they’re obtaining the best product for the best price.
That’s why sheriffs’ offices in Florida commonly have some sort of policy that requires the agency to compare prices and product offerings from multiple vendors before using public money for large purchases or contracts.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office's own purchasing procedures say the agency is supposed to get as many quotes as possible for any purchase over $10,000. However, next to the exemptions typically seen on public purchasing ordinances -- emergency situations and sole-source products -- is an exemption listed simply as “the sheriff’s discretion.”
Nocco stands by his decision.
“They're the only ones that provided the storage of the information, the quality of the camera,” he said.
He said he came to the conclusion after a few of his employees got opinions from other agencies, tried out a couple of cameras from one other company, and attended law enforcement technology conferences.
Nocco’s agency was the first in the country to buy Taser’s unlimited cloud storage plan. At the time, other vendors offered data storage utilizing local servers.
Josh Isner, Taser International’s VP of global sales, says the quality of Taser’s camera system stands on its own.
“If the product was really a bad product, we’d get a bad reputation,” he said. “All these agencies talk.”
The Tampa Police Department was shopping around for body cameras and data storage around the same time as Pasco Sheriff’s Office. The agency put out a request for proposals -- with detailed demands for data storage and compatibility with other law enforcement tools already in play -- and got bids from five companies. TPD decided Taser’s product was the best fit for the agency’s needs, even though the vendor’s quote was the most expensive. They signed a five-year contract with Taser for 60 camera systems, with plans to outfit the rest of the department with the devices.
“I think the taxpayers of Pasco County deserve more than just the sheriff’s word that he has gotten them a good deal,” said Ben Wilcox with the public watchdog group Integrity Florida. “He should be able to show them, by going through the competitive bidding process, that it is, in fact, the best deal.”
THE TASER TRIP
Major Mel Eakley, the man Nocco delegated to head up the body camera project, attended the Taser conference, along with Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s IT director.
“No costs for the agency and no commitment to buy,” Eakley said in an email to Chief Deputy Jeff Harrington, asking for permission to attend. “No cost works well,” Harrington wrote back, approving the trip.
Isner says Taser’s Tech Summits do include dinners, receptions, and hotel stays, but they require an agency’s approval before employees can attend. He says the weekends are not general sales pitches for Taser products.
“We don’t train on the product and we don’t really talk about our product the entire day,” he told FOX 13. “We talk about the way the technology is going in general.”
In addition to round trip airfare, Taser paid for accommodations at the Desert Ridge Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, where rooms start around $400 per night.
“At no time did I ever hear them pitch their product. I heard from law enforcement agencies who had went through extensive training, extensive research with their body-worn cameras,” Eakley told FOX 13. “I never once, when I was there, ever heard from anybody during any presentation to try to purchase anything.”
Peter Butzin with Common Cause Florida says the Taser-sponsored trip for the two employees poses a real problem.
“That’s something that could come before the ethics commission, if a complaint were filed by a member of the public,” he said. “Obviously, when you’ve got a vendor providing gifts, that process can steer the decision in the favor of the vendor.”
There were still three weeks left before the end of the agency’s extended trial period when Nocco asked Taser reps for a conference call.
“We are very excited about being able to partner with the Pasco County SO on the Axon/Evidence.com Unlimited plan,” Taser’s senior sales manager, Jonathan Wrenn wrote in an email to Nocco after the call.
“We look forward to the partnership,” Nocco wrote back. It was a few days before Thanksgiving.
BALLARD PARTNERS: TASER IN TALLAHASSEE
Taser International formed another partnership around Thanksgiving 2014.
The company also hired Ballard Partners, one of the largest firms in Florida, to represent the company in Tallahassee. Nocco’s wife, Bridget, works for the firm as a consultant. She did not respond to FOX 13's requests for interview.
Brian Ballard, the president of Ballard Partners, says Taser International hired his firm to represent the company for the upcoming legislative session “around Thanksgiving.”
Ballard said he did not know anything about Pasco’s contract with Taser International.
“I can assure you we had zero knowledge about what was going on in Pasco,” Ballard told FOX 13 in a phone interview, noting that his firm represents about 200 clients.
Ballard says the firm was hired to represent Taser International through National Strategies, a company that coordinates Taser’s lobbying efforts across the country. Ballard’s main task was to find some appropriations for Taser equipment for the Florida Highway Patrol in the 2015 legislative session, he said.
Ballard Partners started representing the company in Tallahassee in the beginning of January 2015. Taser International paid Ballard Partners between $55,000 and $85,000 for the session, state records show.
Taser International also denied a connection between the timing of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office contract and the timing of Taser’s hiring of Ballard Partners.
“Absolutely, 100-percent a pure coincidence,” said Isner. “We had no knowledge at all that the sheriff’s wife was working for them.”
Isner said National Strategies identified Ballard Partners as a good match for their legislative priorities in Florida last year.
FOX 13 asked the sheriff what he would to say to anyone who questioned the timing of the two contracts.
“Well, first, my wife doesn't lobby. She works for the firm; she doesn't lobby,” he replied. “Second of all, that was on the state level. Third, I don't even think they represent them anymore.”
Ballard confirms Taser is no longer a client.
Florida law prohibits public officers using their positions to benefit themselves or others. The sheriff says none of that happened here.
He also repeatedly suggested FOX 13’s questions about an appearance of a conflict of interest, which were directed toward the sheriff himself, amounted to attacks on a “working woman.”
“It's just sad that in today's society, you have a working mother, you have -- people are going to be targeting her for these types of things. It's happened before and unfortunately, these things come up,” Nocco said.
Even before he was hired at Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, the intersection between his wife’s career and his own was hard to ignore. Bridget Nocco had raised funds for Marco Rubio; Chris Nocco spent four years working as deputy chief of staff for Rubio, who was then speaker of the house.
In 2011, Governor Rick Scott appointed Nocco as sheriff when outgoing Sheriff Bob White retired. Bridget Nocco, a Republican consultant, had worked on Scott’s campaign.
Two days after Chris Nocco was sworn in as sheriff, lobbying firm Smith & Ballard -- now called Ballard Partners -- announced the company hired a new fundraising consultant: Bridget Nocco. Ballard was a finance co-chair for Scott’s inaugural committee, according to his bio.
“Mrs. Nocco, who has not performed any lobbying duties since 2013 with the firm, did not have any dealings with the Taser account as it was handled by another member of that firm,” spokesman Daniels said an emailed statement following FOX 13’s interview with the sheriff. “We had no contact with that firm throughout our selection process, testing and evaluation phase or during the contract negotiating period.”
SHERIFF CHRIS NOCCO'S CHARITY SHOOTOUT
Four days before the sheriff signed the Taser contract, Eakley sent a sales rep an email, asking if Taser would donate to Nocco’s upcoming charity event.
The February 2015 event, called “Sheriff Chris Nocco’s Charity Shootout,” benefited Pasco’s K-9s and other programs, according to the flyer.
After Eakley sent another email in January, Taser donated $2,000 – the top level of sponsorship.
“We support all kinds of charitable efforts for law enforcement,” Isner told FOX 13. “We know it’s public, so we have nothing to hide.”
He says the company often gives to causes that involve a “lower dollar amount,” which he described as $2,000 or less, in response to a request from a public agency.
“If you look at, across any government agency that puts on charity events, there's contractors that provide money. If you look across private groups, there's contractors that provide money,” Nocco said. “That's the nature of charity.”
Ben Wilcox with Integrity Florida says the practice is fraught with problems.
“While it’s not benefiting the sheriff himself personally, it is benefiting his charity and there’s a perception that the vendor is gaining influence by making that contribution,” he told FOX 13.
Five years ago, a statewide grand jury examined “how procurement contracts could be awarded to a bidder who may then contribute to an elected official’s charity of choice,” part of a report called “A Study of Public Corruption in Florida and Recommended Solutions.”
“While we want charitable contributions, we don’t want them to be made for dirty reasons,” the report says.
Nocco says there’s nothing wrong with it.
“I think it's great that those companies give locally,” Nocco said. “With that money, we're able to have local companies get t-shirts for the events. With that money, we're able to buy the dogs. With that money, we're able to help kids. You know, this is a business, too.”
Common Cause Florida’s Butzin says there’s a big difference between business, which operates for profit, and government, which has special obligations to the citizens it serves.
“Taxpayers want to be assured that their expenditure of public funds is serving an efficient public purpose,” he said. “And if those decisions are made behind closed doors, out of public view, and if they're made with a conflict of interest -- either a real or perceived conflict of interest -- the public has a right to be concerned.”