A search of records reveals questionable ties of police chiefs

In this memo to staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how a statehouse reporter’s aggressive pursuit of public documents uncovered a story that had immediate impact in cities across the country:

Iowa City-based Ryan Foley, a member of the State Government Team, was working with Minnesota Statehouse reporter Brian Bakst on a story about the high cost of police body cameras and video storage fees when he spotted the outlines of an accountability thread.

In this Feb. 19, 2015 file photo, Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, demonstrates one of the company's body cameras for The Associated Press during a company-sponsored conference hosted by Taser at the California Highway Patrol Headquarters in Sacramento, Calif. Officials in Salt Lake City and Fort Worth, Texas, said they are reviewing their ethics policies after The Associated Press reported on how their police chiefs were closely linked to the company that won contracts to supply officers with body cameras. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this Feb. 19, 2015, file photo, Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, demonstrates one of the company’s body cameras for The Associated Press during a company-sponsored conference hosted by Taser at the California Highway Patrol Headquarters in Sacramento, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Taser, one of the biggest players in the fast-growing body camera market, had questionable financial ties to the police chiefs who held sway over their cities’ decision on whether to spend significant taxpayer dollars on such gear. Foley flagged it to the attention of his editors and outlined an initial coverage plan, then was given time to dig.

Through aggressive use of public records and persistence in following up, Foley broke the story that Taser, the stun-gun maker, was indeed forging financial ties with police chiefs as a way to win lucrative city contracts in the body camera market. Here’s how it works: Taser covers the expenses for police chiefs to pitch its products at company events across the country and has hired recently retired chiefs as consultants just months after they pushed for approval of Taser contracts.

Foley’s story quickly prompted officials in Fort Worth, Texas, and Salt Lake City to launch reviews of their ethics policies: “What you’re seeing is the Fourth Estate in action,” Salt Lake City spokesman Art Raymond told Foley for his follow-up story. Tom Cowan, chairman of the ethics committee for the Texas police chiefs association, told Foley that his story had prompted the group to examine the former Fort Worth chief’s actions as a likely violation of its ethics code: “It’s caused a lot of entities to rethink this,” he said.

Foley read company literature and financial documents to identify individuals, filed records requests in the cities where they served and pursued comments from his main subjects over several weeks. In Fort Worth, city officials resisted efforts to release some documents and even appealed to the Texas Attorney General’s office, an effort that remains ongoing. Foley did get some of what he requested and turned that into a sidebar that exposed an incriminating email exchange between the city’s former police chief and a Taser sales rep: “I have the votes,” the chief triumphantly declared after persuading the city to approve a rushed $2.7 million contract to help Taser meet a quarterly sales goal. The chief retired shortly afterward and is now in negotiations to get a consulting job with Taser that will take him to Australia and other overseas destinations to promote the company’s products.

Foley also revealed that the current Salt Lake City police chief, who had done extensive promotional work for Taser, had bypassed the normal city budgeting rules to buy 295 Taser body cameras without the City Council’s knowledge. Emphasizing the significance of the beat, a reporter for a Salt Lake City TV station emailed Ryan a congratulatory note after his story ran, saying, “I had heard rumors about this unhealthy relationship more than a year ago but couldn’t pin anything down; glad you busted this out.”

In addition to prompting immediate action in several cities, Foley’s story landed in the top 10 on AP Mobile on a heavy news day. It also made the front pages of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Salt Lake Tribune.

For spotting an important thread and aggressively pursuing public records for a story with immediate real-world impact, Foley wins this week’s $300 Best of the States award.