Fancy houses. Expensive cars. Even his own personal bodyguard.
Robert Leonard certainly seemed to live large, to those he allowed into his inner circle, even as his company’s business deals with Dallas County Schools were driving the school bus agency into financial crisis.
“Very extravagant. Money is no object,” said Beth Mazziotta, of her next-door neighbor, when Robert and Linda Leonard – and their dog, Jack - lived in Dallas.
Leonard started his company, Force Multiplier Solutions, in a Louisiana warehouse, and eventually partnered with Dallas County Schools, beginning in 2012.
Leonard and his wife soon moved to Dallas, as his company grew, but returned to Louisiana last year [cq] as questions mounted about the deals being made between Force Multiplier Solutions and Dallas County Schools.
The costly transactions have also triggered a criminal investigation, with NBC 5 Investigates reporting that the FBI in June served search warrants at Leonard’s home, near New Orleans, and his company’s high-rise offices in downtown Dallas.
The school bus provider would eventually pay the company more than $70 million – all on the taxpayers’ tab – to equip buses with surveillance cameras meant to catch motorists illegally passing school buses during stops to pick up and let off children.
Through a partnership DCS would buy cameras from FMS and give them to school districts for free.
In exchange DCS would get ticket revenue from drivers caught on camera illegally passing school bus stop signs. That revenue fell far short of expectations.
The program immediately ran into problems – difficulties in collecting traffic ticket fines; the absence of local ordinances allowing tickets to be issued based on camera video; and bus route stops that did not pose a threat from passing motorists.
But despite those problems, and the low level of returning revenue, Dallas County Schools continued to invest in Force Multiplier Solutions.
At the same time, neighbors said, Leonard’s lifestyle seemed to become more lavish.
His walls were lined with fine art, Mazziotta said, and his backyard – complete with a private pond he shared with neighbors – was often the scene of festive parties.
“And then the new Bentley showed up,” Mazziotta said. “Two: his and hers.”
Leonard was especially jubilant, she said, after he helped arrange a deal in which the cash-strapped Dallas County Schools sold four bus lots to a Chicago-area investment firm for $25 million, then leased the lots back so they could continue to park buses.
Records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates shows the transaction will eventually cost taxpayers an additional $47 million, over 20 years in lease payments, for land they once owned outright.
“Like I said, he likes to brag … he had just pulled off a big coup, a big deal,” Mazziotta said, adding: “They were all excited about it. And they were celebrating. Smoking cigars and drinking bourbon.”
Away from home, Leonard courted politicians, and contributed heavily to their campaigns, in hopes of creating laws that would make his cameras more marketable.
“I’m peacock proud,” said a smiling Pauline Medrano, former Dallas City Council member and now Dallas County’s treasurer, when last year she introduced “my personal and dear friend” – Leonard in black tie and tux – to the National Association of Latino and Appointed Elected Officials.
Medrano had reason to smile during the Washington D.C. event: Leonard had pledged $1 million to NALEO in what, at the time, was described as a five-year “partnership” with Force Multiplier Solutions to “increase Latino participation in the political process, from citizenship to public service.”
“I promise you that we’re here for the long term,” Leonard told the receptive crowd.
But that didn’t happen.
NALEO told NBC 5 Investigates the partnership dissolved after a year, with Leonard contributing only a fraction of the pledge - $167,000. In an email to NBC 5, NALEO said Leonard told them his company could not pay any more “due to financial reasons.”
It wasn’t the first time Leonard was on center stage for a political event.
In 2014, as Leonard tried to win support for bus cameras in Austin, he brought an old friend to town – Edwin Edwards, the former Louisiana governor who served eight years in federal prison for public corruption.
Edwards told NBC 5 Investigates that he was surprised when his friend Leonard called and asked him to come to Austin, so that then-Mayor Lee Leffingwell could proclaim it “Edwin Edwards Day.”
Edwards said he met Leffingwell for the first and only time on that day, during a lunch of about 30 people, including Leonard. And while he said he wasn’t certain what motivated his to organize the event, he suspected it was to show off in front of Austin’s politicians and civic leaders.
The lunch gathering sparked controversy, in light of Edwards’ criminal conviction, with one headline in the city’s largest newspaper, the American-Statesman, saying it was like “Honoring the dishonorable.”
Reached by phone, the 69-year-old Leonard declined to comment for this story, other than to direct all questions to his lawyer, Chris Lewis.
Lewis told NBC 5 Investigates in an earlier statement that Leonard has done nothing wrong, and that his cameras have been a success “in many school districts across the country.”
Lewis’ statement also said Leonard has been “profoundly instrumental in supporting and promoting the safety of our children for decades.”