The Dallas Morning News

Man behind scandal sentenced

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

- 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.

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ROBERT LEONARD

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