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Board of Pardons and Parole chairman Michael Sibbett is retiring after 15 years.
Utah's former Board of Pardons chairman tapped Sen. Orrin Hatch to help pass legislation virtually guaranteeing a multimillion-dollar windfall for a Sandy-based company that sells ankle monitors for parolees, according to a state court lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims to lay bare how the former pardons chairman, lobbyist Michael Sibbett, and other former public officials purportedly sought to secure no-bid federal and state contracts for their client through their congressional ties and their connections with Utah officials.
One of their main vehicles was a sex offender bill Hatch shepherded through Congress this summer. The bill included minimum requirements for ankle monitors taken "verbatim from a description" of Secure Alert's product, TrackerPAL, according to the suit.
Sibbett and his partner Robin Riggs, who worked as legal counsel in former Gov. Mike Leavitt's administration, wrote the language and pushed the product to Hatch and his staffers.
"TrackerPAL is to my knowledge the only company that can meet those minimum standards," Sibbett said.
The bill creates a pilot program providing states with grants, but the money can only be spent on ankle monitors that meet the legislation's requirements. And according to the suit, that means TrackerPAL. The bill appropriates $15 million over the next three years but also creates a path to increase the size of the
Sibbett stands behind his efforts, which he says will improve public safety and help decrease the costs of housing prisoners.
But Alex Knott, of the Center for Public Integrity, said Sibbett's push undermines the free market system, where competition allows the public to "get the top amount of products or services for their tax dollars."
"Circumventing" the competitive process drives up costs and depresses quality, said Knott, political editor for the center, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization.
Such provisions are often "written behind closed doors with a nod and a wink."
Secure Alert's efforts to secure contracts were brought to light after the Sandy company's executives fired their lobbyists, who were working under the business name HGR Enterprises, because the company felt the contract provided too much compensation, according to court records. HGR is now seeking $1.3 billion in damages.
HGR's Sibbett still backs the TrackerPAL device and said of the lawsuit, "I'm just disappointed it has finally got to this point."
Secure Alert hired Sibbett and HGR in late January to promote TrackerPAL among politicians throughout the country.
Sibbett felt the new technology offered benefits to the criminal justice system that traditional ankle monitors couldn't match.
Standard tracking devices rely on radio waves and phone lines to keep tabs of those on house arrest. TrackerPAL uses satellite transmitters and a built-in, two-way radio so that police officers not only know when someone left their home but also can talk to them when they do.
The upgrade in technology comes with a price. The units cost $6 each per day to operate.
The company wanted government contracts and was willing to pay its lobbyists 50 cents a day for every monitor worn by a parole or sex offender in Utah and 75 cents a day for those outside the state.
Sibbett started in Utah. He discussed the need for more ankle monitors with lawmakers who were worried about the state's burgeoning prison population.
He persuaded state Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, to propose intent language allowing the Department of Corrections to spend money on new tracking devices.
Sibbett then sold the TrackerPAL to his old colleagues in Corrections, who signed a contract on May 1.
The department promised to pay $173,000 for 50 ankle monitors as part of a test case, Corrections spokesman Jack Ford said.
Just two months later, the Adam Walsh Child Safety Act was signed by President Bush, giving Sibbett and Secure Alert a much bigger opportunity.
This bill, pushed by Hatch in the Senate and former Florida Rep. Mark Foley, among others, in the House, created a national sex offender registry and called for police to equip the worst sex offenders with an ankle monitor. The bill included "a single-source provision that only the TrackerPAL device can satisfy," according to the lawsuit.
Before it was passed, Sibbett and Riggs say they recruited some high-profile supporters. Ed Smart and his daughter Elizabeth, who was famously kidnapped from her home in 2002 and found nine months later, appeared on television shows like "Good Morning America" and "America's Most Wanted" to promote the bill. Ed Smart held up the TrackerPAL in one appearance, Hatch in the other. A picture from "America's Most Wanted" now appears on Hatch's Web site with the caption: "Hatch is holding an example of the ankle tracking device that will be attached to the worst of the worst convicted offenders."
Hatch's office declined to comment on HGR and Sibbett's involvement in the sex offender bill.
Secure Alert has not yet signed any contracts as a result of the legislation but does promote that likelihood in materials it presents to investors.
Sibbett sees nothing wrong with his actions. He believes the device will help the criminal justice system so he pushed the connections he had to further its reach.
"We are not holding up banks or sticking a gun to somebody's head saying, 'You have to sign a contract,' " he said in an interview.
And of his effort to make hundreds of millions of dollars on its success, he says: "I don't see anything wrong with it. That is kind of the American way, to go out and work hard, and I think I've worked hard."
Lobbyists regularly use their political connections to help a specific company, said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., group that tracks money in politics.
But the lawsuit allows a "rare look at how business often gets done in Washington," Ritsch said. "They're showing how the sausage is made and sometimes it stinks a little."
* EDITOR DAN HARRIE contributed to this report.