As promised, here is an exclusive BINJ reader-first copy of Fire Sale Pt. I, which will publish in different forms in outlets across Massachusetts over the next month … It’s a long read and we hope that you enjoy it in this format (you can also read it right on Substack)
Even for weapons dealers who have flouted state laws, there is major money to be made by selling munitions to police in Massachusetts
BY CHRIS FARAONE AND CURTIS WALTMAN
Mass Attorney General Maura Healey is well known for taking tough liberal positions on gun control. It’s a hard-earned reputation by multiple measures, as the AG has investigated and fined scofflaw arms dealers, spoken loudly in the wake of mass shootings, and even led attorneys general from other states in urging Congress to strengthen national safety regulations.
In response to her actions and grandstanding, Healey’s been a target of lawsuits brought by gun rights advocates, as well as protests online and in real life. In 2016, hundreds of Second Amendment activists, many with the Mass-based Gun Owners Action League, demonstrated outside of the State House after the attorney general moved to ban “copycat” semiautomatic assault rifles.
In addition to the penalties and rolled heads she and other prosecutors have accumulated in pursuing rogue dealers of firearms and gray market modifications, Healey’s office also monitors gun flow in law enforcement channels, a unique labyrinthine beast in its own right. The state spends millions every year replenishing and bolstering its arsenals, plus adding advanced equipment and technology. As do municipal police and other taxpayer-funded public safety outfits. These purchases often have little to no oversight beyond the procuring departments, and have as a result spurred certain impropriety; in one case, the Boston Globe first reported that Healey is investigating “allegations that … three troopers sold about 500 used state police guns to a Greenfield firearms dealer in 2015 on behalf of the department,” then “allegedly received nearly two dozen of those weapons as personal gifts.”
That ongoing spending scandal has been reilluminated as the state police also come under fire for overtime discrepancies between real hours worked and payments to dozens of lieutenants and captains, and with the media and public knowing that the brass ignored warnings about shenanigans that reportedly surfaced in an internal department audit. But even as prosecutors impugn payroll on one front and eye gun sales on another, private vendors and police-side purchasers of military gear have proceeded with business as usual. The Greenfield dealer still embroiled in the aforementioned buyback controversy has sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in goods to Mass in the last three years, while other active sellers include a shop in Worcester that the AG recently caught selling guns that are banned in this state.
Since the beginning of this year, our team at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has examined hundreds of state purchasing agreements, for everything from heavy crime-fighting equipment to consumables for laser printers. Of the many contracts that caught our attention, the firepower free-for-all unpacked herein (SP16-AMMO-X85, abbreviated as AMMO in following references) stands out as especially dubious, with entities on all sides operating in an unchecked fashion despite being on the radar of state prosecutors. Nearly three years into the AMMO arrangement, a malleable open call that allows for multiple contracts to be approved under it, vendors have leveraged the opportunity to make millions of dollars off the state. For most of those procurements, there was no competitive bidding. And the process is far from transparent.
AMMO comes up for a one-year extension on Oct 31. To date, participating agencies have already rung receipts that double their allotted $1.5 million budget.
Unless somebody or something interrupts the supply chain, it’s likely that the spending spree will carry on indefinitely.
In September 2015, the Massachusetts State Police, along with the Department of Correction and the Environmental Police, announced that it had plans to solicit “bidders for the acquisition of firearms, ammunition, less than lethal munitions, and related training, accessories, and services/ maintenance.” A follow-up “request for response” notice was sent the following month to suppliers of “Public Safety, Law Enforcement & Protection” equipment. In this unveiling of AMMO, the participating state agencies sought proposals from makers and distributors of everything from practice ammo and targets, to handguns, silencers, tasers, tear gas, chemical munitions, pepperball launchers, dart guns, gas masks, and ballistic blankets. For anything that didn’t fit in those parameters, the authors included the catchall “use of force equipment.”
The procurement process is complex in Mass, as is the case in any public realm where millions—or for larger states, billions—of dollars are spent annually on everything from software, to vehicles, to catering and concrete. In order to help streamline thousands of transactions each year (there are currently more than 2,500 contracts in the system), the state’s Operational Services Division (OSD), a department of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, manages CommBuys, a massive dating site of sorts for approved private sector vendors and prospective buyers from state agencies, municipalities, and select nonprofits that apply for access to the clearinghouse.
A lot of bulk state purchasing is done directly through OSD, with its deputies facilitating everything from publicizing the announcement, to overseeing competitive bidding where applicable, to the selection process. Many software contracts, for instance, are managed by OSD, which connects departments to qualified suppliers. In such situations, among other safeguards, OSD designates strategic sourcing services teams (SSSTs), which are structured as deliberative bodies “composed of members drawn from departments and eligible public entities that have an interest or expertise in particular commodity and service categories” and that help make decisions about procurement. A sourcing team assigned to parse bids for a contract relative to school bus window replacement, for example, includes stakeholders from the departments of transportation and recreation, among others.
Whereas so-called statewide contracts as described above have direct OSD oversight, “nonstatewide” contracts simply use the CommBuys portal as a pass-through in procuring goods and services. For AMMO, the latest mass police solicitation of guns and other combat tackle like pepper projectiles and sound suppressors, it is solely the participating departments that weigh options and execute agreements. A review of publicly available and mined materials related to purchases stemming from arms-related contracts suggest that procedures of such ponderous proportion proceeding for years without input from a third-party administrator can lead to a lack of transparency as well as other concerns including but not limited to: