Rick Sorrells has a doctorate and was a minister, the judge noted. He made a good living as a public servant, heading up an agency that provided school buses for Dallas students.
Despite his opportunities in life, Sorrells succumbed to the allure of something better: fancy cars, expensive jewelry and lavish trips. And it took more than $3 million in bribes to make it happen, prosecutors said.
“You just sold out the public for your own financial benefit,” U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn said Wednesday during Sorrells’ sentencing hearing.
The judge gave Sorrells, 73, seven years in federal prison for a bribery scheme that led to the spectacular demise of the school transportation agency known as Dallas County Schools.
Sorrells, the agency’s former superintendent, took the illicit payments from the owner of a Louisiana camera company. In exchange, Bob Leonard’s company received $70 million in contracts to provide surveillance cameras for the agency’s school buses.
Sorrells is the last of several defendants to be sentenced in the case, including Leonard and Dwaine Caraway, a former Dallas mayor pro tem.
Lynn said Sorrells was the most culpable player in the “sordid scheme.”
“You were supposed to be a faithful servant to your community,” Lynn told him. “You are at the top of the pile. This happens because of you.”
She told Sorrells he was living “high on the hog,” while his employees struggled and never recovered. Lynn said he won’t live long enough to repay the $125 million restitution she ordered in his case.
Sorrells pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud and was the first to cooperate in the case. He made recordings for the FBI. As a result, his cap was reduced from 20 years to 10, according to prosecutors.
Still, Lynn expressed doubts about his “excellent deal” with prosecutors and reminded him he could have received a lot more time. She gave him until Sept. 17 to report to prison.
In his remarks, Sorrells apologized for his behavior and said he asked his family not to attend the sentencing hearing to spare them.
“I was weak,” he told the judge.
Sorrells said his greed caused him to make “horrific decisions that affected an entire community.” He said he got in so deep, he “didn’t see a way out.”
Lynn took issue with that explanation.
“You had a way out. You could have stopped … and taken your medicine,” she said.
Sorrells said that when the FBI showed up, he was relieved because he could finally end it.
“I had what was the perfect life and I didn’t realize it,” Sorrells said.
Prosecutors said Sorrells took payments through a set of bogus companies that he helped create. The money was used to pay off Sorrells’ credit card and student loan debts, among other personal expenses, prosecutors said.
He also spent it on a 2014 Maserati, a 2012 Porsche and at least $66,000 in jewelry, court records show.
It had appeared that Sorrells was the last defendant to be sentenced in the case. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Wirmani told Lynn on Wednesday that there was “at least one matter ongoing.”
“This defendant pocketed a whopping $3.5 million in bribes, simultaneously crippling the agency he was tapped to lead and undermining the public’s trust in city officials,” said Erin Nealy Cox, the U.S. attorney in Dallas. “The citizens of Dallas deserve better — and they should rest assured that we are committed to rooting out public corruption wherever we find it.”
Sorrells retired in March 2017 from the school bus agency, which was the focus at the time of an investigation by KXAS-TV (NBC5) into wasteful spending on equipment supplied by Leonard’s company.
At the time of his retirement, Sorrells was making more than $206,000 a year as superintendent. But the agency was in serious debt and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of the camera deals, which brought only “pennies on the dollar,” according to court documents.
The camera system was expected to bring in significant revenue by collecting fees from motorists ticketed for driving around school bus stop arms.
Dallas County Schools even bought thousands of extra cameras from Leonard’s company and tried to sell them to other Texas school districts. But the promises of extra revenue never came true. The risky venture put Dallas County Schools on the verge of bankruptcy.
In 2017, voters decided to shut down the 171-year-old agency, which had amassed more than $100 million in debt that taxpayers are now saddled with.
Cynthia Barbare, Sorrells’ attorney, told Lynn that Leonard was the “mastermind” and the “money man” in the case. She described him as a charming, opportunistic, cunning con man. By contrast, her client was a “yes man,” she said.
She also said Sorrells was a “pillar of the community,” before the criminal conspiracy.
“His moral compass went askew,” Barbare said of her client.
Leonard, 71, was sentenced in May to seven years in prison.
Leonard also bribed Caraway to help him out on the Dallas City Council. The businessman and his associates doled out tens of thousands in campaign contributions to other elected officials.
Lynn sentenced Caraway in April to 56 months in prison for accepting about $450,000 in bribes and kickbacks between 2011 and 2017.
Slater Swartwood, a business associate of Leonard’s, helped set up some of the shell companies used in the bribery scheme. He struck a plea deal for money laundering and was sentenced by Lynn last month to 18 months in prison.
The conspiracy spanned about seven years.
Dallas County Schools selected Leonard’s company, Force Multiplier Solutions, to install cameras on its buses in 2010, even though it had submitted one of the highest bids for the project, according to prosecutors.
Leonard told Sorrells at one point that he was ”underpaid” and could get extra money by doing research as a consultant, prosecutors said. So Sorrells opened a shell company in a family member’s name to get paid. The executive helped hide the payments by creating a fake Craigslist ad for services and instructing Sorrells to reply to it, at which point a lawyer would be his contact.
Sorrells submitted fake invoices for his supposed consulting work for Leonard in order to disguise some of the bribe companies, according to court records.
Later, Leonard told Sorrells it would be safer and easier for him to pay Sorrells’ bills, court records say. He then suggested that all payments to Sorrells “should be concealed as an alleged loan.”
In addition to the cars, jewelry and personal debts, the money was used for personal trips and a luxury apartment in New Orleans. In October 2017, an NBC5 investigation revealed Sorrells’ use of the apartment for family and friends. The unit was next door to an apartment used by Leonard, owner of the school bus camera company, according to the building’s owner.
In return for the payments, Sorrells oversaw agreements for Dallas County Schools to purchase the cameras worth millions of dollars