New York Daily News: By Chris Sommerfeldt & Tim Balk – As New York has moved to significantly expand its traffic camera programs in recent years, an Arizona-based technology firm has seen a financial windfall by parking itself at the center of those efforts, brushing off a 2020 lawsuit alleging it overbilled the city while also spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying.
In the last decade, the city’s camera network has spread from about 20 school zones to 750, gladdening street safety advocates.
The program, which was extended to 24/7 in school zones last year, appears to be working: Rates of speeding in camera-monitored areas dropped by 73% during hours of operation through the end of 2021, according to city data.
It has also meant big business for Verra Mobility Corporation, a Mesa, Ariz., transportation tech company that has inked four camera contracts with the city Department of Transportation since January 2014 worth a combined $951 million, public records show.
At the same time, Verra — whose city contracts were preceded by heavy spending on government lobbying — has been dogged by the 2020 lawsuit.
That lawsuit, filed jointly by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and a whistleblower, accused Verra of erecting dangerously noncompliant electrical poles, installing more than 150 unnecessary poles and receiving millions in payments from the city for the allegedly unnecessary work.
The complaint was based on accusations from the whistleblower, an electrician named William Marshfield, and said Verra — which entered an initial $159 million contract with the city in 2014 for operating its red light and bus lane cameras — ran a reckless operation that “failed to instruct and train” workers on how to comply with local laws.
After Marshfield objected to Verra’s installations of unnecessary and noncompliant electrical poles, he was fired, the suit charged.
Verra ultimately reached a $1.3 million settlement with the city and Marshfield dated Nov. 22, 2021 — without admitting wrongdoing. Under the agreement, Verra paid $270,284 to Marshfield and just over $1 million to the city.
The de Blasio administration contended in the settlement agreement, which was obtained by the Daily News, that it had grounds to pursue civil charges against Verra under the New York False Claims Act. The administration, however, said it had agreed to not pursue those claims in exchange for the settlement payment.
About two months after the settlement, the Department of Transportation awarded Verra a new $367 million contract to keep running the city’s red light and bus lane camera system.
The mid-January 2022 award, one of the first major contracts issued under the tenure of Mayor Adams’ then-new Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, also came against the backdrop of a Department of Investigation monitorship of Verra’s operations.
DOI spokesman Eric Lenkowitz said his agency placed the company under a monitorship in March 2021 “due to concerns about deficiencies with respect to Verra’s installation of photo enforcement cameras.”
The monitorship runs through March 2024 and is handled by consulting firm Sam Schwartz Engineering.
Manhattan Councilwoman Gale Brewer, a Democrat who chairs the Council’s Oversight and Investigations Committee, said it’s “hard for me to understand” why the Transportation Department opted to keep contracting with Verra after the settlement.
“It is bewildering how you end up with a $1.3 million settlement, which clearly means there’s something that’s amiss, and then you get a new contract for more than $300 million,” said Brewer, whose committee has oversight over the DOI. “It is bewildering to the public how that happens.”
Still, Brewer said she’s confident the DOI will keep a close eye on Verra and suggested the monitorship may need to extend beyond 2024.
“It needs attention, it raises a red flag, but I do have trust in DOI,” she said.
The Transportation Department did not respond to questions about Verra last week.
Verra did not reply to requests for comment, either. It is unclear how the company first responded to the 2020 lawsuit as filings in whistleblower cases are under seal in New York.
City Comptroller Brad Lander’s office, which is tasked with reviewing contracts the city reaches with vendors, said it examined Verra’s settlement before authorizing the $367 million contract last year.
“Our oversight review ensured that the Department of Transportation sufficiently addressed these past issues when determining if the vendor would be responsible,” said Chloe Chik, Lander’s spokeswoman.
The new red light and bus lane camera deal came on top of a $222 million contract the de Blasio administration gave to Verra in June 2021 for installation, maintenance and operation of school zone cameras, according to a government notice.
There are only a handful of competitors to Verra in the speed and red light camera industry.
The company has spent a small fortune lobbying government officials in the city, which runs the camera program, and in Albany, which approves major changes to the network’s operations.
Last year alone, the company shelled out more than $215,000 to lobby city officials, according to records from the City Clerk’s Office.
One of the top targets of the company’s lobbying has been Rodriguez, who chaired the City Council’s Transportation Committee before becoming Adams’ transportation commissioner.
The firm’s lobbying of Rodriguez dates back to at least 2018, the earliest year for which records are available in the City Clerk’s Office database.
Over the course of 2018, Verra paid the government relations powerhouse Kasirer LLC $60,000 to lobby Rodriguez and a handful of other Council members on speed camera legislation, the records show.
Since then, Verra has kept Kasirer on retainer, shelling out $385,000 to the firm for lobbying services between 2019 and 2022, with Rodriguez listed as one of its targets throughout that period, records show. Among the reasons listed in records for the lobbying of Rodriguez was “relationship building.”
In 2021, Verra signed a $55,000 contract with a second government relations firm, CMW Strategies, to also lobby Rodriguez, according to documents.
In September and October of 2021, CMW was specifically tasked with lobbying Rodriguez on Verra’s behalf about “procurement” related to the city’s speed camera network, records show.
A few months later, following Rodriguez’s appointment as commissioner, the Transportation Department issued the $367 million contract.
Separately, in July 2022, Verra netted a so-called demonstration contract from the Transportation Department to test a pilot program for camera enforcement in bike lanes.
The contract comes at no cost to the city, but a solicitation notice states the pilot will assist the city “in determining whether to use automated enforcement as a tool for issuing violations” over vehicle transgressions in bike lanes.
Top Feature Photo: A speed camera is seen on Sixth Ave near Broome St in Manhattan last August – Luiz C. Ribeiro/for New York Daily News