When a major player in the red-light camera industry last summer began courting the City of Tonawanda, it struck some as curious.
Even odder, the Arizona-based company pitching photo enforcement for the tiny municipality’s intersections, Redflex Traffic Systems, was being driven out of Chicago during an investigation into bribery allegations. Red-light scofflaws here haven’t feared the prospect of cameras since 2011 when Buffalo considered a program.
So why the City of Tonawanda? Why now?
It turns out that Redflex, in an effort to expand photo enforcement across the state, had hired the lobbying firm Park Strategies, who counts among its partners a familiar face in the local political landscape: former Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra.
“At the time, we were under contract, and I was asked by one of my colleagues to see if I could make some introductions in some communities where Redflex might be able to be helpful,” Giambra said.
Redflex paid Park $5,000 a month in a consulting agreement that expired Feb. 15 to help it pitch its red-light cameras to municipalities across the state, including Tonawanda and Niagara Falls, according to state records.
In August, David Samuel, regional sales manager for Redflex, met with then-Mayor Ron Pilozzi and Police Chief William Strassburg. Also at the meeting was Giambra.
“I made the introduction of red-light cameras to the mayor,” Giambra said. “The mayor then brought his police chief in and his police chief was interested and the mayor was interested in the program.”
That lobbying practice is permitted, though regulated. Giambra said his involvement was minimal and aboveboard.
“We are paid by companies to assist them,” he said. “I did just that and everything was done all cards face up.”
But critics of the red-light proposal have questioned why the city didn’t seek competing quotes from other companies for a deal potentially worth more than $1.5 million for Redflex over its five years, especially since questions have been raised about the company’s ethics.
Redflex early last year blamed a former executive vice president for inappropriately bestowing lavish Super Bowl trips, golf outings and other gifts on Chicago transportation officials in a $2 million scheme.
Strassburg said he was satisfied with the corrective action the company took including firing top executives and said he didn’t see a need to request bids from other companies.
“I kind of felt that a company that has gotten caught doing this, and had to make adjustments to correct what action was going on, was safer than the other companies who may not have been caught,” Strassburg said.
Redflex’s contract with Park Strategies demanded compliance with anti-bribery laws and Redflex’s own new anti-bribery policies and procedures, which resulted from the fallout in Chicago.
“That was a whole other management structure,” Giambra said. “That was a whole other group of people. This is not the same company.”
The chief also said Redflex met all his conditions, most importantly an assurance that the city would never incur any expense.
But the use of red-light cameras has been controversial. Rochester and New York City have red-light cameras. But Buffalo’s proposal failed after Common Council members called it a “money grab.”
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that after a decade of steady growth, the number of communities using cameras to catch drivers who run stoplights has fallen about 6 percent since 2012, to 508, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by the automobile-insurance industry.
Filings with the New York State Commission on Public Integrity show Giambra lobbied the City of Tonawanda and Niagara Falls Police Department on behalf of Redflex in November and December.
Niagara Falls “will not be proceeding with this initiative at this time,” said City Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson.
Park also has lobbied other cities across the state on behalf of Redflex including Utica, New Rochelle, Seneca Falls, Syracuse, Yonkers and the town of Wallkill, state records show.
A step toward cameras
City of Tonawanda officials last year said they saw photo enforcement as a way to improve safety at three dangerous intersections police find difficult to monitor.
Giambra said he and Redflex approached Tonawanda not because of his friendly relationship with Pilozzi, a fellow Republican, but because he thought public safety would benefit.
Pilozzi was at the time facing a tough re-election challenge. Giambra donated to the city’s Republican committee in October shortly after the city’s all-Democratic Common Council unanimously approved by a vote of 4-0 the first step toward red-light cameras – obtaining approval from state lawmakers in Albany. And since losing his re-election bid, Pilozzi has been hired as an aide to a key Giambra ally.
“We’ve had a relationship there,” Giambra said of Pilozzi. “It’s a Republican mayor, I was a Republican county executive. We’ve known each other for a long time.”
Strassburg said he understood that Giambra’s role was to provide assistance in ushering home rule request through the Assembly and Senate.
“When he was at the first meeting they explained that he was just there as a resource for the company to help when they needed the home rule passed,” Strassburg said.
Giambra has a different view.
“My job was to make an introduction,” he said. “I did that.
The home rule request was sent to Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, who said he needs more information and has had no discussions with Giambra about it.
Giambra also stressed that Redflex is the client of a different Park lobbyist, Joe Rossi.
“I did not bring the client in,” he said. “There are a number of partners and we all have different clients. We all work on each others’ clients’ behalf.”
Strassburg had hoped to have cameras installed by March. But that home rule request is now stuck in limbo and may never be acted upon.
Two weeks after the Council’s vote, and one week before Election Day, the Tonawanda Republican City Committee recorded a $500 contribution from Giambra, according to a financial disclosure report filed with the state Board of Elections. It’s a significant sum for a small political operation, which he had not donated to recently and most often lists its Canal Fest proceeds among its receipts. Giambra said he has been a longtime supporter of Pilozzi.
“Nothing was done clandestinely or surreptitiously,” Giambra said.
Giambra left office with a brimming campaign treasury, at one time boasting just shy of $800,000 in his account. In 2010 he used part of his leftover funds to play a key role in shaping the new Republican majority in the State Senate. He gave $18,000 to Niagara County Republicans and another $13,000 to Erie County Republicans, according to state records. The recipients in turn supported Republican Mark J. Grisanti’s upset win over Antoine M. Thompson.
Pilozzi said his role in dealing with Redflex was also minimal and left mostly up to the police chief and Samuel. The subsequent contract was negotiated by the company’s attorneys and City Attorney Ronald C. Trabucco, a Democrat, with the Council ultimately deciding in December to approve it, Pilozzi said.
“Joel’s donation didn’t sway anybody’s mind,” he said. “It was all Democrats on the Council.”
In early December, Mayor-elect Rick Davis said he was brought up to date on the issue during a meeting with Samuel, Giambra and Strassburg.
Davis said he was “surprised” to see Giambra at the meeting. Giambra would “help get the home rule request through Albany,” Davis said. “That was my understanding.”
The Council – again unanimously – at its Dec. 17 meeting went on to approve an exclusive five-year contract with Redflex worth as much as $313,200 a year for the Arizona-based company.
Pilozzi signed the agreement in late December before leaving office. He began a part-time job Feb. 18 as a community liaison in Grisanti’s office, according to Doug Curella, the senator’s chief of staff.
Among Pilozzi’s duties are meeting with advocacy groups and constituents and, as a veteran himself, assisting with veterans’ issues, Curella said by email.
But the proposal will go no further unless the home rule request is granted and the Council enacts a local ordinance.
“We are waiting on guidance from the Council regarding next steps,” said Jody Ryan, Redflex’s director of communications.
And with three new Council members and a new mayor who took office Jan. 1, the proposal’s fate is in new hands.
“We would help them with the home rule process,” Giambra said. “But they would have to pass a home rule message first, which I don’t know they’re prepared to do at this point.”
Those new officials are lukewarm and even outright hostile to the idea of contracting with Redflex. Lawmakers are hesitant to rebuke the chief on a public safety initiative he favors. But, while initially supportive of the idea, the Council’s newest members have been taking a tougher look at the proposal, and at Redflex in particular.
“While I support the chief on the initiative and the concept that we need to increase safety at these key intersections – over 60 percent of our accidents happen at these intersections – I cannot fully support this company,” said 4th Ward Alderwoman Jenna N. Koch. “I cannot allow our city to funnel money to a company that has some serious allegations against them.”
And the new mayor said his interest is also waning.
“If it doesn’t pass, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it,” he said. “There’s far more important things to worry about here in the city than red-light cameras.”