By Scott Carter
OKLAHOMA CITY – Officials with the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety sought access to peoples’ bank account and bank routing numbers as they negotiated a contract for a controversial debit card reader program, records obtained by the ACLU of Oklahoma show.
In addition, other documents show that ERAD touted its relationship with the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s office and listed a controversial Illinois law enforcement official who was heavily involved in the Desert Snow/Black Asphalt firms as a reference for the program.
The information comes to light at the same time public safety officials held a press conference to talk about what they said was misinformation and propaganda about the card reader program.
Designed to read the data contained on the magnetic strip on the back of a pre-paid debit or gift card, the ERAD reader can be plugged into a law enforcement officer’s laptop computer. That information, DPS officials said, can be used to fight drug trafficking and identity theft. The card reader program can be used as part of the state’s civil asset forfeiture program.
Monday, DPS Commissioner Michael Thompson told media representatives the ERAD system could not access a resident’s bank account information.
However, buried deep in the 199-page contract, a section shows that DPS officials explicitly asked the ERAD Group, a Ft. Worth, Texas, company to provide a means of accessing individual “banking information (account number, routing number)” and for the ability to freeze or seize the money in the account.
In its original “Solicitation Specifications,” DPS asked ERAD to “provide a fully functional solution that allows law enforcement to read and manage data (seize, freeze or return funds) from cards with magnetic stripes containing account numbers and cash balances at the time of contact.”
In its response to DPS, the ERAD Group said it could not provide the individual bank records DPS wanted. ERAD said its system did not “provide banking information such as bank account number or routing number” and asked that the section be removed from the contract.
“Many of the prepaid access devices law enforcement will find are gift cards, purchased with cash. As such, we request that C.2.1 be omitted from the solicitation,” the company wrote.
The ERAD Group said additional information regarding each prepaid access card is only “available via subpoena sent directly to the issuing financial institution” but added the company would assist DPS whenever asked to obtain that information.
In the paragraph following ERAD’s reply, DPS officials acknowledged the need to use a subpoena for banking information and withdrew the request for access to banking account information and routing numbers.
“In retrospect the vendor's comments sound reasonable,” DPS wrote. “Would assume all gift type cards composition is universal. The point is well taken and should have been considered some information requires a subpoena. Therefore DPS has no objection to removing C.2.1.1.c.”
During Monday’s press conference, both Thompson and Lt. Rick Adams said state troopers could not access personal bank account information, but neither Thompson nor Adams disclosed that the agency had initially requested individual bank account information and the American Banking Association routing numbers tied to those accounts.
“We can do nothing with someone’s bank account. We can do nothing with someone’s debit card,” Adams said. “What we can tell is if the information is your personal credit card info.”
Thompson said DPS began training on the ERAD system on May 13. He said since then, troopers had not stopped anyone that “resulted in us putting a hold or attempting to freeze or hold” anyone’s funds.
“Contrary to the propaganda (that) we’re doing a swipe and seize and taking anyone’s money, that’s just not true,” he said.
Thompson said the impression that “OHP is out there scanning everyone’s information” was wrong.
“(We) don’t have scanners,” Thompson said. “We have card readers. We have to have reasonable suspicion to stop someone and have to have probable cause to move to swipe the information on that card. We cannot access your bank account.”
Controversy surrounding the program has grown since Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit organization that specializes in investigative reporting, published a story about the agency’s use of the card reader system last week.
Brady Henderson, Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said Thompson and others weren’t telling the whole story about the ERAD contract.
“The only reason they didn’t get access to personal banking information was that the company told them ‘no,’” Henderson said.
Henderson also called ERAD’s connection with Desert Snow/Black Asphalt officials troubling.
“It’s concerning that one of ERAD’s references was a key figure in Desert Snow, a company whose employees were caught impersonating police officers in Caddo County to make illegal seizures,” Henderson said. “This same individual was also involved in Black Asphalt, a secret program that violated citizens’ privacy to turn a profit.”
Henderson said ERAD’s contract with Navajo County, Nevada law enforcement officials was also “substantially cheaper” than the company’s Oklahoma contract.
“Oklahoma’s ERAD contract includes a 7.7 percent charge on forfeited funds,” he said. “In Nevada that charge is 2 percent less,” he said.
The program has become so controversial that Thompson said DPS officials were “reevaluating” the card reader system. At least one media outlet has reported Monday that the program has been put on hold. Thompson said he wanted go and sit through ERAD training to get a better feel of how the system worked.
Several state lawmakers have called on DPS to stop using the card readers. In a media statement, state Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, likened the use of the system to government robbery.
“This is deplorable,” Williams said. “The State of Oklahoma is allowing the OHP to swipe money from a card even if the trooper has no solid proof that the money in the card holder’s account was acquired illegally. The government is robbing its people.”
State Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, said the card reader program was a dangerous, unconstitutional tool. Loveless said the fact that DPS officials initially sought access to banking information shows the program was just another method to take money.
“We’ve seen this time and time again,” Loveless said. “Now we see they were trying to get that type of information. This shows this isn’t about identity theft, drugs, or crime or ISIS, it’s just another method to take innocent people’s property.”
At least three requests for legislative studies about the program are pending in the House of Representatives. Loveless said he planned to hold a series of public meetings about the program this fall.