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Monday, October 20, 2008

Police camera maker is profitable for politicians

WatchGuard Video, which provides patrol car cameras to state and local police forces across the nation, points with pride to the lawmakers who helped the company grow from a tiny technology startup into a government contracting powerhouse.

And at least two of the lawmakers turned a profit in the process — after the state police began ordering millions of dollars worth of equipment and expanding far outside Texas, interviews and state records show.

Two Texas legislators who made early investments in the booming company said they'd done nothing wrong and never pulled strings on behalf of WatchGuard. But their actions might violate the state constitution and disclosure rules established by the Texas Ethics Commission.

A former Texas legislator and part-time city judge are also investors, the company says.

Government watchdogs say it's an ethical minefield for state lawmakers to have interests in companies with major state contracts.

"When the state representatives are involved it appears like they're greasing the skids with the contract," said Texas ethics watchdog Fred Lewis, who has urged the Legislature to tighten conflict-of-interest laws. "I'm not saying that's what happened, but that's what it looks like."

The state constitution prohibits lawmakers from benefiting "directly or indirectly" from a state contract authorized by the Legislature they serve in, but it doesn't say what happens to lawmakers who violate the provision.

The company president, Robert Vanman, called WatchGuard "squeaky clean" and said he resented any suggestion that the contractor had engaged in any "shady" dealings. The company has deals to sell patrol car video systems to at least a dozen state law enforcement agencies — and hundreds of local ones, according to company literature and state records.

If WatchGuard is an industry leader, Vanman said, it's because of its products, not because of political influence.

But WatchGuard's own Web site touted the company's politically connected shareholders in the first place. A published company profile boasts that WatchGuard, based in the Dallas suburb of Plano, is "privately funded and closely held by an influential shareholder group that includes three state representatives, a judge, and a number of distinguished entrepreneurs."

It doesn't name the politician-investors on the Web site, but Vanman did. They are Reps. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, Byron Cook, R-Corsicana and former Rep. Bob Griggs, a Dallas-area Republican. WatchGuard's vice president of operations, Dennis Pirkle, is a part-time city judge and jail magistrate, according to company literature. [Mark Godsey]

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