Even for weapons dealers who have flouted state laws, there is major money to be made by selling munitions to police in Massachusetts
Mass Attorney General Maura Healey is well known for taking tough liberal positions on gun control. It’s a hard-earned reputation by multiple measures, as the AG has investigated and fined scofflaw arms dealers, spoken loudly in the wake of mass shootings, and even led attorneys general from other states in urging Congress to strengthen national safety regulations.
In response to her actions and grandstanding, Healey’s been a target of lawsuits brought by gun rights advocates, as well as protests online and in real life. In 2016, hundreds of Second Amendment activists, many with the Mass-based Gun Owners Action League, demonstrated outside of the State House after the attorney general moved to ban “copycat” semiautomatic assault rifles.
In addition to the penalties and rolled heads she and other prosecutors have accumulated in pursuing rogue dealers of firearms and gray market modifications, Healey’s office also monitors gun flow in law enforcement channels, a unique labyrinthine beast in its own right. The state spends millions every year replenishing and bolstering its arsenals, plus adding advanced equipment and technology. As do municipal police and other taxpayer-funded public safety outfits. These purchases often have little to no oversight beyond the procuring departments, and have as a result spurred certain impropriety; in one case, the Boston Globe first reported that Healey is investigating “allegations that … three troopers sold about 500 used state police guns to a Greenfield firearms dealer in 2015 on behalf of the department,” then “allegedly received nearly two dozen of those weapons as personal gifts.”
That ongoing spending scandal has been reilluminated as the state police also come under fire for overtime discrepancies between real hours worked and payments to dozens of lieutenants and captains, and with the media and public knowing that the brass ignored warnings about shenanigans that reportedly surfaced in an internal department audit. But even as prosecutors impugn payroll on one front and eye gun sales on another, private vendors and police-side purchasers of military gear have proceeded with business as usual. The Greenfield dealer still embroiled in the aforementioned buyback controversy has sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in goods to Mass in the last three years, while other active sellers include a shop in Worcester that the AG recently caught selling guns that are banned in this state.
Since the beginning of this year, our team at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has examined hundreds of state purchasing agreements, for everything from heavy crime-fighting equipment to consumables for laser printers. Of the many contracts that caught our attention, the firepower free-for-all unpacked herein (SP16-AMMO-X85, abbreviated as AMMO in following references) stands out as especially dubious, with entities on all sides operating in an unchecked fashion despite being on the radar of state prosecutors. Nearly three years into the AMMO arrangement, a malleable open call that allows for multiple contracts to be approved under it, vendors have leveraged the opportunity to make millions of dollars off the state. For most of those procurements, there was no competitive bidding. And the process is far from transparent.
AMMO comes up for a one-year extension on Oct 31. To date, participating agencies have already rung receipts that double their allotted $1.5 million budget.
Unless somebody or something interrupts the supply chain, it’s likely that the spending spree will carry on indefinitely.
In September 2015, the Massachusetts State Police, along with the Department of Correction and the Environmental Police, announced that it had plans to solicit “bidders for the acquisition of firearms, ammunition, less than lethal munitions, and related training, accessories, and services/ maintenance.” A follow-up “request for response” notice was sent the following month to suppliers of “Public Safety, Law Enforcement & Protection” equipment. In this unveiling of AMMO, the participating state agencies sought proposals from makers and distributors of everything from practice ammo and targets, to handguns, silencers, tasers, tear gas, chemical munitions, pepperball launchers, dart guns, gas masks, and ballistic blankets. For anything that didn’t fit in those parameters, the authors included the catchall “use of force equipment.”
The procurement process is complex in Mass, as is the case in any public realm where millions—or for larger states, billions—of dollars are spent annually on everything from software, to vehicles, to catering and concrete. In order to help streamline thousands of transactions each year (there are currently more than 2,500 contracts in the system), the state’s Operational Services Division (OSD), a department of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, manages CommBuys, a massive dating site of sorts for approved private sector vendors and prospective buyers from state agencies, municipalities, and select nonprofits that apply for access to the clearinghouse.
A lot of bulk state purchasing is done directly through OSD, with its deputies facilitating everything from publicizing the announcement, to overseeing competitive bidding where applicable, to the selection process. Many software contracts, for instance, are managed by OSD, which connects departments to qualified suppliers. In such situations, among other safeguards, OSD designates strategic sourcing services teams (SSSTs), which are structured as deliberative bodies “composed of members drawn from departments and eligible public entities that have an interest or expertise in particular commodity and service categories” and that help make decisions about procurement. A sourcing team assigned to parse bids for a contract relative to school bus window replacement, for example, includes stakeholders from the departments of transportation and recreation, among others.
Whereas so-called statewide contracts as described above have direct OSD oversight, “nonstatewide” contracts simply use the CommBuys portal as a pass-through in procuring goods and services. For AMMO, the latest mass police solicitation of guns and other combat tackle like pepper projectiles and sound suppressors, it is solely the participating departments that weigh options and execute agreements. A review of publicly available and mined materials related to purchases stemming from arms-related contracts suggest that procedures of such ponderous proportion proceeding for years without input from a third-party administrator can lead to a lack of transparency as well as other concerns including but not limited to:
- According to the secretary of the Commonwealth’s Guide to the Massachusetts Public Records Law, almost all bids, documents, and quotes on contracts are supposed to be made publicly available after the deadline for receipt of proposals expires. None of the few possible exemptions to the rule apply to departmental gun procurement; nevertheless, details about manufacturers and models, as well as volume and cost, are frequently redacted or omitted altogether from public documents. This has long been protocol; when MSP ordered 2,500 new pistols from the Springfield-based Smith & Wesson in 2011, the department expressly withheld detailed pricing information to the consternation of reporters, activists, and good government groups.
- Whereas guidelines for “statewide” OSD-run contracts require buyers to “obtain at a minimum at least three quotes through the requisition process … to determine which contractor can provide the best value for the equipment/supplies/related repairs and services being purchased,” that rule is “for Commonwealth executive agencies [like OSD] only.” “Other entities [like MSP] do not have a quote requirement but are encouraged to get multiple quotes to ensure the best possible pricing on contract.” It’s like an honor system for defense contractors.
- Of 18 vendor responses to the open AMMO solicitation that were publicly available to use as a lens for this assessment, all but one, which failed to meet basic eligibility qualifications, appear to have been accepted. It is difficult to ascertain what products were bought and for how much; some documents on CommBuys are blank, incomplete, or missing signatures completely, while spaces designated for bid tabulations and comparison pricing between various vendors are empty. Still, there are scattered clues that point to some particulars of the procurements.
This trend continues to unfold in Mass, even as more researchers arrive at the conclusion that the bulking up of local forces is for naught, or worse. A paper released in August by the National Academy of Sciences argues that “militarization fails to enhance police safety or reduce crime but may harm police reputation.” The study concludes: “(SWAT) teams are more often deployed in communities of color, and—contrary to claims by police administrators—provide no detectable benefits,” noting that “seeing militarized police in news reports erodes opinion toward law enforcement.”
While such findings “suggest that curtailing militarized policing may be in the interest of both police and citizens,” that message hasn’t stuck in Massachusetts. The AMMO funnel is a prime example. The open contract was supposed to total $1.5 million over its initial three-year term (2015-2018), or double that ($3 million) if it’s extended three more years through 2021, as is possible through optional one-year extensions starting this Oct 31. In practice, the state police, with some help from the Department of Correction and Environmental Police, spent more than $3 million—twice the initial allotment—in just the first three years, from 2015 to mid-2018.
Police don’t always get to process their own spending without oversight. Another comparably large umbrella contract MSP uses to purchase goods and services is managed by OSD, with strategically assigned stakeholders from various agencies making decisions. In that case, certain pertinent information is publicly available—some quantities and dollar amounts are even listed. But unlike the AMMO solicitation, the procurement helped by OSD specifically excludes all “firearms, ammunitions” and “related training products.”
For the most part, it’s only when it comes to guns that law enforcement entities can buy whatever they want without any outside scrutiny.
Not that scrutiny and oversight always work as intended. Despite some semblance of checks and balances, one law enforcement contract run by OSD (abbreviated herein as FIRE), which stretches through the end of this year with an option to extend through 2020, appears to be deeply compromised. Three of the FIRE team members who were chosen to represent state police interests—Robert Outwater, Michael Wilmot, and Paul Wosny—are the same troopers who are being investigated by the AG for receiving weapons from a contractor in Greenfield.
In the meantime, as was reported in July, Wosny, a lieutenant commander with the MSP’s armorer’s section, has retired. As has Wilmot, who was an armory trooper.
Outwater, it recently came out, is cooperating with authorities. His attorney told MassLive, “The armorer’s division was completely mismanaged by the command staff. … In typical fashion the state police allowed the major and the captain to move on with their lives and with their pension, and my client now is being investigated.”
We filed more than 15 records inquiries for clarity on these contracts, with MSP, DOC, the AG, and the Environmental Police all receiving requests. So far, the only office to return any information at all was the AG, which mostly sent documents that were already public. The state police failed to furnish all requested records and did not return specific questions and follow-ups by our stated deadline.
There’s an excavation business south of Boston that isn’t allowed to contract with Mass until 2023. The demolition business was caught stealing wages from employees and landed on the Mass attorney general’s list of barred contractors. It’s a similar story for several construction and other small companies that were caught breaking various laws; many, for example, failed to properly insure their workers. At least five state agencies and offices keep such compendiums of businesses and corresponding individuals that aren’t welcome to bid on state gigs—among them, the attorney general’s office, Mass Department of Transportation, and the Executive Office of Administration and Finance. None of the lists, however, include weapons vendors that have run afoul of Mass watchdogs and prosecutors.
Some businesses the Commonwealth procures guns and other heavy cop equipment from have recently been looked at by the state attorney general, while certain companies have landed in headlines due to their inadequate transparency. Of the many vendors of militarized goods and services that Mass does business with, there are several interesting characters and contractors with noteworthy backgrounds.
- Firearm enthusiasts may know Camfour, Inc. as the giant behind EZGun, the supplier’s simple “online system for ordering and account management.” Residents of the Pioneer Valley, however, may primarily know the Westfield-based company from the noted philanthropy and influence of Peter Picknelly, a major investor behind Camfour who is also the CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines. Two years ago, the Springfield Republican reported that Picknelly successfully lobbied against a proposed cross-Commonwealth rail study, infuriating transit equity boosters. Like Springfield-to-Boston rail advocates, anti-gun crusaders also dislike Picknelly; though not the direct seller, Camfour distributed the Bushmaster that Adam Lanza used to massacre nine people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. Families of the fallen and one survivor attempted to sue Camfour and others for vending a weapon they argued has no place in a civilian setting, but a judge dismissed the case in 2016. In the time since, Bay State public agencies including the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office and MassDOT have continued to work with the Westfield contractor.
- An anonymous tip made in 2015 to the AG and the Worcester ATF office claimed the Worcester-based “Gun Parlor is known for selling non-compliant handguns and large capacity magazines.” After a subsequent investigation of the dealership, Healey’s office reported that “various violations of state law were uncovered, including the sale of … firearms that have not met the statutory safety testing requirements to be listed on the state’s approved handgun roster.” The AG’s dive also revealed that the Gun Parlor “failed to provide legally mandated safety warnings to customers, did not properly verify that handguns sold to law enforcement and military personnel were being purchased for official duties, and sold handguns with a barrel length shorter than three inches to consumers without first providing disclosures required under state regulations about the potentially limited accuracy of such weapons.” In December 2016, the owner of the same Worcester-based range and retailer entered into an agreement with the AG that required him “to pay $10,000 in attorney’s fees … along with an additional $25,000 in penalties for the illegal sale of Glock handguns, which will not be collected if The Gun Parlor complies with the settlement for two years.” Despite that agreed-upon probationary period, according to the Massachusetts open checkbook, a resource that’s ostensibly intended to increase public transparency (but frequently lacks info on gun sales), the Mass DOC recently spent more than $25,000 on an unknown quantity of unlisted items from the Worcester retailer.
- In 2010, DOC Lieutenant Gary Mendes was indicted by a Plymouth County grand jury and charged with three counts of larceny and two counts of procurement fraud. Already facing prior charges for illegally securing guns and other war toys for himself, it was additionally revealed that while serving on a committee that steered buying decisions, Mendes entered an unholy union with a vendor that landed a multimillion dollar contract with the DOC. As then-Attorney General Martha Coakley said at a press conference after staties assigned to her office arrested and arraigned him in 2009: “We allege that Lieutenant Mendes took advantage of his opportunity as head of procurements for the DOC in essentially stealing over $100,000 of equipment for personal use. … Essentially, he had the opportunity because he did the purchasing.” Mendes pleaded guilty in 2011 and was placed on probation with a suspended prison sentence. In a public statement, Coakley noted, “This conduct will not be tolerated and our office will continue to prosecute and investigate these crimes of public corruption.” As for the vendor in question, which went unnamed in media accounts and AG press releases on the matter, Jurek Brothers were not criminally charged. In the time since the Mendes-DOC ordeal, the Greenfield dealer has done more than $2 million in business with Mass under various contracts. Several transactions have come since the Globe revealed in 2016 that the business reportedly gave free guns to troopers who were responsible for firearm purchasing. With a grand jury investigation reportedly pending on that matter, Jurek still does business with the state.
Asked why a company that flouts the law would be permitted to conduct business with Mass, a spokesperson for the AG noted that the office has limited statutory authority over debarment and only does so in cases where public construction or independent contractor laws are violated.
Thomas Merrigan, a former member of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council who represents Jurek Brothers in his private practice, refused to comment on his client’s case, but told the Globe in July that there has “been no wrongdoing” by his client.
Earlier this year, US Sen. Ed Markey and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh jumped on the political pile after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In headline-grabbing tandem, they proposed a bill at the federal level that would encourage other states to follow the Commonwealth’s “model” for gun control.
On the ground in Mass, however, things are hardly calm or steady on the firearm and law enforcement fronts.
In her role, Healey has continued to make good on promises dating back to her first year in office, when she informed the state’s 350 gun dealers that she was going to tighten enforcement of consumer protection regulations established in the late ’90s. The AG’s letter led to more than 2,500 grudge buys in a single day and many more over the following months; despite such reactions and protest, Healey has endured, launching criminal investigations, and recently calling on Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to show more spine in handling his state police force.
For his response, Baker has taken rhetorical stands against graft. In an appearance on the WGBH show Boston Public Radio, the governor addressed the state police scandals head-on. “Stuff that goes on on my watch belongs to me,” he said. “Once issues are raised we will do whatever we can to fix them and address them.” In another interview, Baker acknowledged that “there’s a lot of work to be done here to polish this one up.”
Dennis Galvin, a retired MSP major who heads the education-focused Massachusetts Association for Professional Law Enforcement, has pushed for Baker to convene a “blue-ribbon commission” to investigate the state police, while members of the House of Representatives took action and provided funding for MSP oversight. Following multiple scandals that cost the Commonwealth millions of dollars, in their most recent budget state lawmakers included $300,000 for a unit, overseen by the inspector general, that will “monitor the quality, efficiency, and integrity of operations, organizational structure, and management functions and seek to prevent, detect, and correct fraud, waste, and abuse in the expenditure of public funds.”
Whoever ends up looking into contracts such as AMMO may want to peruse the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) records of gun vendors, as well as the secretary of state’s lobbying reports. While the AG moves to moderate the sale of firearms in Mass, more conservative officials, from small towns out west all the way up to the governor’s office, are gorging on campaign gifts from distributors and dealers. Together, executives from military supply outfits (and their spouses and employees) have given pols hundreds of thousands of reasons to tread lightly.
In the scope of just the AMMO vendors, stakeholders from the Westfield-based Camfour have contributed thousands to Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito since 2015. Picknelly family members alone have written checks for more than $20,000 combined. The Arizona-based Axon Enterprise, which sells tasers and surveillance cameras among other items, has spent $30,000 lobbying on Beacon Hill so far this year and has executed contracts worth approximately $2.2 million with Mass under AMMO.
The owner and managers of the Gun Parlor also gave to Polito and Baker, but in the time that they were under investigation by Healey, they neglected to accurately disclose their company affiliation. One salesman apparently listed his place of employment as “Gau Parlor,” effectively obscuring the donation on the public record. On the same day, another salesperson gave $500 to Polito; under the employer line, the OCPF record says “Gem Parlor.”
More than any other public entity in Mass, MSP has been repeatedly exposed for improprieties and faced blistering public and media scrutiny. Precedents, meanwhile, offer little promise that new revelations about purchasing, these or any other, will yield smarter spending. Past troubles with overtime abuse, for example, forced state police brass to seek fixes and solutions; but whether they deploy their safeguards is another question altogether. As the Associated Press reported about MSP wage corruption, cruisers were already equipped with devices that could have helped to verify worked hours, but troopers and their union resisted using the GPS function until the recent scandal surfaced and pressure mounted.
Offering an MSP response to those unsavory developments, in April State Police Col. Kerry Gilpin told reporters, “It is clear that the actions of members of this agency have threatened [the public’s] trust.”
Promising gradual, eventual reform, she added, “These changes will not happen overnight.”
In a state wracked by misconduct and abuse, that’s one thing residents of Mass can count on.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of an ongoing series on procurement and purchasing in Massachusetts. To see more reporting like this, you can contribute at givetobinj.org.