Man Behind the Cameras, Robert Leonard, Sentenced to Prison in Dallas County Schools Scandal

Leonard sentenced to 84 months, ordered to repay $125 million with Sorrells and Caraway

Robert Leonard, a central player in what federal prosecutors say may be "the largest domestic public corruption case in history," has been sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in the Dallas County Schools school bus camera scandal.

Leonard, whose $4 million in bribes reached beyond DCS and into Dallas City Hall, was sentenced Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn who could have sent him to federal prison for as long as 10 years.

"This is a shameful episode in our community," Lynn told Leonard before handing him his sentence.

Leonard took to the witness stand to testify as attorneys for the prosecution and defense hashed out a restitution amount. Department of Justice attorneys wanted $137 million while the defense said it should be closer to $79 million. Either amount, Lynn speculated, would unlikely be able to be repaid by Leonard.

In the end, Lynn ordered Leonard to repay $125 million jointly with his co-conspirators, former DCS Superintendent Rick Sorrells and ex-Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway.

In his defense, Leonard's daughter and a former assistant testified saying "the thought of him being taken away from us [family] is unfathomable" and that Leonard was a "dreamer and inventor" who created a product to make buses safer.

Prior to sentencing, federal prosecutor Andrew Wirmani told Lynn that the DCS scandal is likely "the largest domestic public corruption case in history" with almost $4 million in bribes paid.

The mention of his name continues to stir anger from the people hurt by the corruption the most -- former DCS employees.

In a group interview with NBC 5 Investigates, several former DCS managers said they believe Leonard's punishment should be more harsh after he admitted paying millions of dollars in bribes to former DCS superintendent Rick Sorrells, and nearly a half-million dollars to Dwaine Caraway, Dallas' mayor pro tem at the time.

"He raped it," said one former employee of the now-shuttered school bus agency. Others who lost their jobs with the demise of DCS had these choice words for Leonard: "He destroyed it" … "He took it down" … "He was the poison."

Caraway is in prison, and Sorrells is destined for prison, after both pleaded guilty to taking those bribes as part of a conspiracy that brought tens of millions of dollars in school bus camera contracts to Leonard's company.

It also cost taxpayers more than $100 million, spelled financial disaster for DCS, and ignited a voters revolt that elected to shut it down.

"I really think 20 years … for all the heartache that he's caused the people of Dallas County Schools," said Mike Williams, a former DCS transportation director who had been with the agency for 17 years.

"Life without parole and a reimbursement. He should be broke," added Tim Jones, a 20-year DCS veteran who had been director of special projects.

They all agreed Leonard was responsible for the crisis that left them and hundreds of their co-workers without jobs.

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Also hurt – in their wallets – were taxpayers who, on election day, voted to shut down the DCS bus agency after more than a century of mostly scandal-free existence.

"We all cried that day … and just looked at each other and couldn't believe what was happening," Williams said.

The group's interview with NBC 5 Investigates was also punctuated with tears as they recalled watching DCS move from a relatively unknown, but steady, school bus service to an agency willing to take risks in pursuit of making money.

They blamed Leonard for convincing their bosses to buy into an onboard surveillance camera program that was supposed to make money from the issuance of traffic tickets.

Instead, it tanked DCS' finances.

And they questioned his involvement in a DCS land deal where taxpayer-owned bus lots were sold, then leased back at taxpayer expense, in a failed attempt to bail out the agency.

One of Leonard's closest associates collected more than $750,000 in that deal – an associate who later admitted he helped Leonard pay the bribes.

In response to the group's comments, Leonard's attorney said in a statement, "…their opinions are inconsistent with the objective tangible evidence in this case."

He did not elaborate.

In his own statements to NBC 5 Investigates in the past two years, Leonard denied that he is to blame for financial troubles at DCS.

Instead, he said it was DCS officials who mismanaged the bus camera program.

In the past, Leonard's attorney has added to that opinion, saying his camera company was a success in many school districts throughout the country, and that he has been "profoundly instrumental in supporting and promoting the safety of our children for decades."

The lawyer also wrote off Leonard's once lavish lifestyle – chauffeur-driven Bentleys, fancy homes throughout the country, a French Quarter retreat in New Orleans – as the rewards of simply being good in business.

The group that sat down with NBC 5 Investigates had a different take.

"He was a crooked and shady businessman," said Prentice Harper, who was area director when he lost his job at DCS, after 34 years.

Williams agreed, adding: "He picked on the weak links that we had at Dallas County Schools, to get it established. And the cancer just grew from there…it never stopped."

NBC 5's Frank Heinz contributed to this report.

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