MCSO pays more than $200K in RICO funds for facial recognition tech; large portion intended for "Honduran unit."

According to records recently released by the Sheriff's office, the MCSO used more than $200,000 in RICO funds to pay for facial recognition technology, software and service from Darcomm Network Solutions and Hummingbird Defense Systems, Inc., two Phoenix-based companies that reportedly work closely together on the sophisticated systems. Internal MCSO memos mention that the technology is being used for massive databases of photographs held at the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC), and to establish a "Honduran unit" with the help of the Federal Police of Honduras to collect photographs of individuals throughout Central America.

(ACTIC is an anti-terrorism task force that brings together law-enforcement entities throughout the state and federally. The MCSO is a part of ACTIC, but the facial recognition technology iteself belongs to the MCSO, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which oversees the program.)

The stated rationale for going into Honduras was to gain intelligence in an attempt to combat the notorious Salvadoran-American street gang MS-13, though there's little evidence that MS-13 has a significant presence in Arizona. Indeed, a 2005 study by the US Justice Department, the National Gang Threat Assessment, does not mention Arizona in regards to MS-13, which was founded in Los Angeles by Salvadorans and has since migrated to the East Coast and set up operations in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and New York.

Nonetheless, in a memo dated August 20, 2007 from Deputy Chief Ray Churay to Chief Deputy David Hendershott, the mastermind behind the Honduras project, Churay cited the MS-13 threat in a request for payment in the amount of $122,144.89 to Darcomm for equipment and software to be used in Arizona and in Honduras.

Although Channel 12 news has reported that top Honduran cop Jorge Rodas insisted no images have yet been given to the MCSO (despite Sheriff Joe's claim of "millions" of photos obtained), Churay's memo stated the MCSO had received photos from Honduras for the MCSO's facial recognition program.

Churay wrote that the Honduran Government had provided the MCSO with "all of their criminal booking photographs, as well as their drivers license photographs," and that the Honduran Federal Police would attempt to obtain mug shots from other Central American nations. "These photographs will be placed in the Honduran Unit and in turn be provided to the ACTIC unit."

The memo also indicates that the Maricopa County Attorney's Office was helping fund the effort.

"This information was provided to Phil J. MacDonnell, Chief Deputy County Attorney, Maricopa County Attorney's Office," wrote Churay. "And he pledged $60,000 of their office RICO funds to help defray the costs of equipment and software to enhance the ACTIC Unit and construct the Honduran Unit...the MCSO RICO fund would have to provide the remaining $62,144.89."

Attached to the memo is an invoice from Darcomm for the full $122,144.89. The invoice references both Hummingbird Defense Systems CEO Steve Greschner and Darcomm president and chief executive Michael Ciavarella. The memo bears what appears to be Chief Deputy Hendershott's initials with the notation "apprvd."

Hummingbird's Greschner is also mentioned in an August 28, 2006 MCSO memo as advising the MCSO on the purchase of servers from Darcomm costing more than $32K. I've placed calls to both Greschner and Ciavarella, and have so far received no reply.

As an aside, it's interesting and a little scary that another memo from Ray Churay to Hendershott notes that the ACTIC's Facial Recognition database includes "approximately 5.7 million" Arizona drivers license records, as well as 2.8 million Arizona mug shots. That means we are, all of us, on file with this Orwellian system.

Hard to know how much of the more than $200K spent on this facial recognition technology should be added to the more than $157K spent on the Honduran project overall. Given reports from Channel 12 that Hendershott pitched this facial recognition technology to a representative of the European Union in Honduras, and that Hendershott's buddy-buddy with an unnamed exec of Hummingbird, one can't help but wonder: Was Hendershott motivated in this project by some possibility of personal gain or a desire to help his cronies?

In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has also given the MCSO a $264K grant to purchase facial recognition technology, though the money is supposed to be spent in Maricopa County. According to my sources at Homeland Security, that money has not yet been spent. Still, was or is the MCSO planning to divert that money to the Honduras project?

There were other costs incurred as part of the MCSO's Honduran junkets which are equally difficult to estimate. Internal e-mails I acquired recently from the MCSO give a general indication of how much time was spent in planning and preparing for the Honduras trips, which are still ongoing by the way. Deputies are still being sent down to Tegucigalpa, despite Joe's previous assurances that the project has been suspended.

Some of the deputies took a special Spanish immersion class to prepare for the trip. Doorstop training manuals were developed, translated into Spanish, copied and shipped to Honduras. One e-mail mentions scores of boxes of manuals shipped to Honduras, paid for by RICO funds. There were discussions of the types of immunization shots deputies needed, equipment required to demonstrate crime scene investigations, the guns they were taking with them, the process of going through customs, etc.

The man hours spent on this project here in Arizona are not part of the $157K I estimated previously for the total cost of the MCSO's Honduras project. Needless to say, if these man hours could be calculated they would significantly increase the final tab for this boondoggle.

MCSO officers have also spent time doing favors for their Honduran comrades. On February 25, Internal Affairs officer Daniel Beck e-mailed Captain Brian Beamish, asking, "I was wondering if you knew where I could purchase a parachute for a descent [sic] price. I have one of the Honduran officials looking for one."

MCSO Captain Edward "Pat" Lopez composed a letter and submitted it for approval by Chief Deputy Hendershott, soliciting donations of equipment and services from companies like FedEx. "Chief," wrote Lopez to Hendershott on August 2, "please review this rewrite of the letter for donations. If you approve, Brian [Beamish] and I will start sending them to potential companies."

One of these letters was e-mailed to an official at FedEx. It tells the recipient that the "MCSO has been asked to restructure the police and jail system in Honduras and is currently planning instructional classes to teach investigators of the Honduran National Police." It continues with a wish-list of equipment, like "digital camera and video equipment, audio recording devices, computer equipment and components, handcuffs and ballistic vests," as well as "educational materials such as paper and binders."

Lopez asked FedEx to "please consider helping this worthy cause by assisting in the transportation of the needed supplies for this program." The e-mail is dated September 13. I don't yet know if FedEx helped out in any way, but I do know that the MCSO paid FedEx $6,791.09 for shipping related to the Honduran escapade in September and October of 2007. Reimbursed by RICO funds.

There are some lighter moments in the e-mails. Captain Beamish fired one off to Detective Mike Brooks and several other MCSO officers concerning a passage in the training materials about sex crime investigations, and specifically, zoophilia, an emotional and sexual desire for animals. Beamish told Detective Brooks,

"You may want to check with Daniel [Beck] on zoophilia; I am not sure if that is a crime in Honduras. In some countries, it is a form of entertainment. It may be offensive to refer to something that is deviant behavior if it is an accepted standard in their country...I am not sure; perhaps my comments would be [seen] as offensive that it could be viewed as entertainment."

Sheesh, did they think they were going to TJ to see the donkey show?

Finally, there's an e-mail from I.A. officer Beck to several top deputies dated August 30, asking, "I am in contact with the folks on the Island area of Honduras, should I plan for all of us going there for the weekend? My suggestion is the third weekend. This way I can [make] reservations and flight information."

Detective Forrest Wright wrote back, "Islands??? works for me. That means there is fishing somewhere close."

And who says the MCSO detectives don't know how to have fun? On the county dime, no less.

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