North Texas

Dallas County Schools Swindler Lived High in Hollywood — At Your Expense

Leonard was seeking to win government contracts to put cameras on school and transit buses in Los Angeles

In the glittering sun of Santa Monica, Robert Leonard, owner of a school bus camera company, lived a second life.

While Leonard bribed Dallas public officials in exchange for government contracts, he also rented high-priced properties, placing him among Hollywood’s elite, on the palm-lined streets of Southern California.

It was there that Realtor Baron Bruno remembers meeting Leonard, who he described as, “Cartoon character-ish. Bald. High energy. Somewhat frantic.”

Bruno said Leonard called in 2014 about renting a condo in a luxurious building in Santa Monica, overlooking the ocean and the Pacific Coast Highway.

The rental fee, according to a real estate listing, was more than $8,000 a month. It’s one of several luxury retreats where Leonard spent time in Santa Monica, between 2014 and 2016, at a time when his company was collecting millions of North Texas tax dollars in contracts with Dallas County Schools.

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.

Those contracts, Leonard now admits, were obtained by paying off Dallas officials.

Neighbors also remember Leonard staying in a $15,000-per-month mansion, and renting two apartments and an office on a hillside building, with sweeping views of the coast.

Those who knew of his doings in California also remember Leonard often staying at the famed Beverly Wilshire Hotel, while he spent thousands of dollars renovating the Santa Monica apartments and office, despite not owning them.

But what they remember most was Leonard’s Rolls Royce.

A beautifully restored, bright yellow building in New Orleans connects two of the central characters in the financial demise of Dallas County Schools and raises significant ethical and legal questions over rules governing conduct between school district officials and their vendors.

Each of Leonard’s West Coast addresses placed him in neighborhoods among the stars, including, neighbors said, actors Michael Keaton and Albert Brooks.

Leonard’s luxurious digs also included an ocean-side high-rise in a building where the penthouse was once owned by late actor Larry Hagman, who played the villain J.R. Ewing in the TV series, “Dallas.”

Today, some see Leonard as a real-life villain, in a true Dallas scandal that funded his lavish living with your tax dollars.

“The money that is in Robert Leonard’s pocket is money that needs to be transferred to the pocket of the Dallas taxpayers,” said Stephanie Curtis, the lawyer for the state-appointed committee in charge of shutting down Dallas County Schools.

Watch the entire NBC 5 Investigates' special report, "Big Buses, Bigger Problems: The $25 Million DCS Land Deal."

The agency wound up nearly bankrupt from bad business deals with Leonard’s camera company, Force Multiplier Solutions.

In a plea agreement in federal court, Leonard admitted he was able to carry out those deals by bribing DCS Superintendent Rick Sorrells and Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, both of whom have stepped down, pleaded guilty to federal charges and are now facing time in prison.

On behalf of DCS, Curtis is suing Leonard and others, trying to recover millions of taxpayer dollars.

“We know where his assets are,” she said, adding, “We are continuing to uncover streams of revenue every day, and are taking measures through the court system to take advantage of those early seizure opportunities.”

In July, Dallas County Schools will be shut down forever. In November 2017 voters acted swiftly to close the 172-year-old agency after more than 100 reports from NBC 5 Investigates revealed corruption and staggering financial mismanagement that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

In addition to his West Coast retreats, Leonard owned an expensive Dallas home, on a private lake, and kept a luxury apartment in New Orleans.

Today, he still owns a mansion in a New Orleans suburb.

Leonard declined an interview with NBC 5 Investigates. His attorney said his earnings did not just come from DCS, but from business transactions with other school districts where, according to the lawyer, there were no questions of impropriety.

NBC 5 Investigates has learned, from records and in interviews, that Leonard was seeking to win government contracts in California to put cameras on school buses, as well as on transit buses in downtown Los Angeles.

Former Dallas County Schools Board President Larry Duncan has pleaded guilty to tax evasion, NBC 5 Investigates has learned.

The records show Leonard’s company met with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation in 2015, but never signed a deal.

But the money continued to flow from Dallas to the Hollywood Hills, with Leonard sometimes invoicing DCS for cameras, using a Santa Monica address and a different corporate name, “RPI Inc.”

“I remember him saying he was starting up a business here,” said Bruno, the real estate agent.

But the Dallas scandal ultimately spelled the end of any California dreams, with Bruno summing it up: “It’s disgusting and it’s disheartening.”

Former Dallas County Schools Superintendent Rick Sorrells could face 10 years behind bars after admitting in court documents he received $3 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for school bus camera contracts.
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