IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa Department of Public Safety has returned to Smith & Wesson all 797 handguns that the state bought under contract that is the subject of an internal investigation, a spokesman said this week.
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The Springfield, Massachusetts-based company was awarded the contract last year to supply handguns to troopers, agents and other state law enforcement officials.
DPS Commissioner Roxann Ryan told employees last month to turn in their newly issued handguns after some officers raised concerns about the weapons' functionality. The department hasn't clarified its concerns, but Ryan told employees she took them seriously because they implicated the safety of the officers and the public.
Days later, the department took the unusual step of hiring two retired Division of Criminal Investigation agents to review the actions of department employees and vendors in the award of handgun contracts dating back to April 2013. The investigators — Ron Mower and Kirk Nielsen — were asked to look at how the state's requests for proposals were drafted and how submissions were evaluated and awarded.
On April 20, three veteran, high-ranking Iowa State Patrol officials were placed on paid administrative leave pending the completion of the inquiry. Among other questions, the review is looking into whether employees showed favoritism to Smith & Wesson, the brand that state troopers have long carried.
The purchasing process featured some unusual developments.
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The department initially solicited new handguns vendors in August 2013, but the request for proposal was abandoned within 24 hours for reasons that haven't been explained. A second solicitation was issued in December 2013 and contract awards went to Smith & Wesson and two other companies in March 2014. But months later, the department said that it wanted an additional safety feature on the guns called a magazine safety lever and opened a new bidding process. Only Glock and Smith & Wesson sought the contract. Glock was disqualified during the testing phase after state officials said its guns didn't have the newly required feature.
In the past, DCI agents carried another brand, Sig Sauer. One stated goal of requiring one contract was to save money by reducing the number of gun vendors.
At a cost of $360 apiece under the contract, the 797 handguns would have cost the state about $286,000 before any credits received for trading in officers' old guns. A department spokesman, Alex Murphy, said the guns have been returned but hasn't explained why, how much the state spent and whether its money has been refunded.
Smith & Wesson spokeswoman Liz Sharp hasn't returned phone messages seeking comment.
Murphy said the department contracted with the retired agents to allow "a timely and thorough initial review" without having to pull internal investigators from other duties. The two are expected to be paid $5,000 apiece and were required to sign confidentiality agreements vowing not to share information with the public or news media.
Ryan and the department have gone to some lengths to keep information about the review confidential. After receiving a public records request from The Associated Press for Mower and Nielsen's contracts, Ryan sent a department-wide email April 20 wondering how a reporter was aware of the investigation and ordering employees to refrain from "rumor and speculation, which usually turns out to be selfish, destructive and mean-spirited."
"If the goal is to create chaos or doubt, or to do damage to the department or to any employee within the department, I would urge you to re-think your priorities," she wrote.
Murphy said the department couldn't discuss what prompted the review or what the safety concerns were, citing exemptions from the open records law for personnel information and attorney-client privilege.
The officials on leave are Maj. Todd Misel, who earns $114,000, Maj. Michael Winter, who earns $111,000, and Lt. Richard Pierce, who earns $87,000. The department will determine whether to take disciplinary action against them once the review is complete.