Man be­hind scan­dal sen­tenced

Leonard paid $3.5M to se­cure con­tracts with trou­bled bus agency

The Dallas Morning News - - FRONT PAGE - By HOLLY K. HACKER Staff Writer hhacker@dal­las­news.com

Louisiana busi­ness­man Robert Leonard Jr. will spend years in fed­eral prison for his role in a school bus bribery scan­dal that bilked Dal­las County tax­pay­ers out of tens of mil­lions of dol­lars.

Robert Leonard Jr. used to drive a Bent­ley. He owned a Pre­ston Hol­low man­sion on a pri­vate lake. He kept lav­ish apart­ments in New Or­leans and Santa Mon­ica, Calif.

Now, the Louisiana busi­ness­man, who had lu­cra­tive con­tracts to put se­cu­rity cam­eras on school buses, will spend years in fed­eral prison for his role in a bribery scan­dal that en­riched him as it bilked Dal­las County tax­pay­ers out of tens of mil­lions of dol­lars.

On Wed­nes­day, a fed­eral judge sen­tenced Leonard to 84 months in prison. Leonard, 71, pleaded guilty last year to pay­ing lo­cal of­fi­cials more than $3.5 mil­lion to se­cure con­tracts for his com­pany.

The judge also or­dered Leonard and the for­mer su­per­in­ten­dent of Dal­las County Schools — Leonard’s big­gest client — to pay $125 mil­lion in resti­tu­tion. But the judge said the like­li­hood of all that money be­ing re­paid was “re­mote.”

Leonard said he launched his busi­ness to keep chil­dren safe on school buses. The en­ter­prise be­came a fi­nan­cial dis­as­ter that led to in­dict­ments of three pub­lic of­fi­cials, plus Leonard and a busi­ness as­so­ciate.

“You had a good idea but the ex­e­cu­tion and what hap­pened after­ward makes that good idea pale by com­par­i­son. This is a shame­ful episode in our community,” U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn said.

Leonard’s com­pany, Force Mul­ti­plier So­lu­tions, con­tracted with school districts to put se­cu­rity cam­eras on school buses. Among other things, the cam­eras were sup­posed to catch driv­ers who blew past the flash­ing red lights and stop signs on buses. School districts could keep part of the rev­enue gen­er­ated by ticket

ing driv­ers.

In 2010, Leonard’s com­pany signed a con­tract with Dal­las County Schools, the agency that han­dled bus ser­vice for kids in Dal­las ISD and sev­eral other area districts. The con­tract even­tu­ally earned Leonard and his com­pany $70 mil­lion.

The deal re­quired Dal­las City Coun­cil ap­proval to write tick­ets within city lim­its. Leonard also had real­es­tate am­bi­tions that needed zon­ing help and po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence.

Leonard bribed City Coun­cil mem­ber Dwaine Car­away to help him out, ac­cord­ing to prose­cu­tors. The busi­ness­man and his as­so­ciates doled out tens of thou­sands in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions to other elected of­fi­cials.

Dal­las County Schools even bought thou­sands of ex­tra cam­eras from Leonard’s com­pany and tried to sell them to other Texas school districts. But the prom­ises of ex­tra rev­enue never came true. The risky ven­ture put Dal­las County Schools on the verge of bank­ruptcy. In 2017, vot­ers de­cided to abol­ish the agency, which had amassed more than $100 mil­lion in debt.

Car­away was sen­tenced to 56 months in prison for his role in the scheme — which was first un­cov­ered in ex­ten­sive re­port­ing by NBC 5 In­ves­ti­gates. Larry Dun­can, the for­mer Dal­las County Schools board pres­i­dent, was sen­tenced in April to six months of home con­fine­ment and three years of pro­ba­tion.

Rick Sor­rells, the for­mer Dal­las County Schools su­per­in­ten­dent, pleaded guilty to wire fraud last year and awaits sen­tenc­ing.

Leonard’s busi­ness as­so­ciate Slater Swart­wood has also pleaded guilty in the case.

In court, Leonard’s lawyer de­scribed how his client over­came a rough child­hood to be­come a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man.

“He wanted to do some­thing with his life’s work to make other peo­ple’s lives bet­ter,” said Leonard’s lawyer, Chris Lewis.

Un­til FBI agents got in­volved, Lewis said, Leonard didn’t see his pay­ments to Car­away, Dun­can or Sor­rells as bribes.

“They had a fi­nan­cial need, and he pro­vided it,” Lewis said.

But prose­cu­tors de­scribed an elab­o­rate scheme in which Leonard fun­neled bribes to pub­lic of­fi­cials through shell com­pa­nies, con­sult­ing agree­ments, checks and loans.

And Lynn said the scheme hurt tax­pay­ers, the community and em­ploy­ees of Dal­las County Schools.

“The prob­lem is that peo­ple who did not make these poor choices pay the price,” she said.

Dressed in a gray suit and white shirt, Leonard sat in court with his ex­wife and daugh­ter, who both spoke on his be­half. He suf­fers from poor hear­ing and health prob­lems. He of­ten strug­gled to hear the judge. He walked slowly, some­times lean­ing on a chair or ta­ble for sup­port.

Leonard apol­o­gized to the court, the city of Dal­las and Dal­las County.

“In­stead of help­ing to save and help­ing the community, sav­ing lives and sav­ing fam­i­lies, I stand here as a crim­i­nal,” he said. “I ac­cept full re­spon­si­bil­ity for my ac­tions.”

Leonard is ex­pected to be­gin serv­ing his sen­tence in July.

ROBERT LEONARD

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