On the California coast, Robert Leonard saw a golden opportunity.
By 2014, he was renting expensive properties in Santa Monica, living among Hollywood stars, and setting his sights on getting more government contracts.
Several sources familiar with Leonard’s plans said he had big California dreams.
“The California market was going to be huge, just because of the numbers, the sheer number of buses they needed equipped,” said one source, with direct knowledge of Leonard’s dealings.
The source asked not to be identified because of employment concerns.
Records show Leonard’s company, Force Multiplier Solutions, met with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation in 2015, seeking a deal to put security cameras on city buses.
He also contacted the LA school district, according to sources.
Around the same time, Leonard and his associates began donating to the campaign of a prominent California politician, Secretary of State Alex Padilla.
“He’s a big figure in California politics,” said Eric Leonard, an NBC reporter in LA who has covered Padilla who was once a member of the Los Angeles City Council.
“He has the kind of experience people look for when they want to know how California works, how LA works,” Leonard said.
Records show Padilla received about $54,000 in donations from Robert Leonard, Leonard’s family and his business associates.
One of those donations came from Elf Investments, the company federal prosecutors say Leonard and his close associate, Slater Swartwood Sr., used to funnel bribes to public officials in Dallas.
A spokesman for Padilla said he knew nothing about Elf Investments, And Padilla, in an interview with the NBC television station in LA, said he met Leonard only briefly, and did not know why his campaign received the donations.
“So, I don’t know. They were contributors to my previous campaigns as you know,” Padilla said, noting: “We have received multiple millions of dollars over the years for the various offices I’ve run for...”
Referring to Leonard, Padilla said, “Never did he approach me or ask me for anything.”
But several sources familiar with Leonard’s business dealings said he seemed to view Padilla as someone who could help his company.
“From the things I heard and people just talking around, that was the person who could get things moving. He was the go-to guy out there,” said the source who did not want to be identified.
The story on how Leonard met Padilla involves Dallas County Treasurer Pauline Medrano.
Leonard explained it himself during a 2016 gala, when he pledged $1 million to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, or NALEO, where Medrano and Padilla had both served as president.
“You know, I met Alex Padilla through Pauline Medrano, and I met both of them through dear clients and friends of mine, Larry Duncan and Dr. Rick Sorrells…,” he told the crowd.
“And they introduced me one afternoon to a group I had never heard of before – NALEO,” Leonard added.
With a big grin, Medrano made the introduction:
“I’m very pleased, I’m honored, I’m peacock proud to welcome …dear friend, Mr. Robert Leonard, chairman and CEO of Force Multiplier Solutions.”
Medrano, who also received a $15,000 campaign contribution, did not respond to questions for this report. And she was silent when NBC5 Investigates asked her about the relationship months ago.
The source familiar with Leonard’s business hopes said, “Miss Medrano’s name came up when getting Los Angeles done, or anything in San Antonio, to help with the officials down there…”
The source said the officials were part of NALEO.
DCS emails obtained by NBC5 Investigates show Medrano, and NALEO’s executive director, Arturo Vargas, once helped bring a NALEO group to Dallas County Schools.
The reason: to look at Leonard’s bus camera system, at the same time Leonard was seeking camera contracts in other cities.
Vargas also has declined to comment.
Photos posted online show Vargas, Medrano and Padilla spent time with executives from Leonard’s company at a NALEO golf outing in California’s wine country.
Leonard’s company, Force Multiplier Solutions, sponsored the 2015 event.
Also present was Luis Alejo, then a state representative and chair of the Latino caucus in the California legislature.
About 10 months after the golf tournament, Alejo introduced a bill in California that would have authorized the use of school bus stop-arm cameras, like the ones Leonard’s company sold in Dallas.
In a telephone interview, Alejo said the bill had nothing to do with Force Multiplier Solutions.
“I never had any conversations with this particular company about this legislation,” he said.
Instead, Alejo said he got the idea for the bill from news reports in northern California about drivers illegally passing school bus stop signs.
In the end, Leonard never signed any deals for camera contracts in California, and the bribery scandal in Dallas now has him heading for federal prison.
Leonard declined to comment for this report. His attorney told NBC5 that he has no knowledge of Leonard’s relationships to NALEO or Alex Padilla.