Law and Public Safety Committee Chairman Dave Siebert, who has voted to spend more than $1.2 million in taxpayer money on the electric stun guns since 2001, was hired by Taser last summer to make a sales presentation to the San Francisco Police Department.
State law prohibits city council members from receiving compensation for services rendered as a public official. The city's ethics policy warns officials "to be wary of accepting gifts or benefits from individuals doing business with the city."
Siebert said he believes in the stun gun and did everything he could to make sure his involvement with Taser was aboveboard. He got approval from the City Attorney's Office, excused himself from any future votes on Taser and declared the payment in a January financial disclosure.
"I did everything in my power, except say 'no.' If I didn't believe in the product, I wouldn't have gone there," he said. "I would like to think that it has saved lives in the city of Phoenix."
Siebert's relationship with Taser was disclosed as questions are raised in Arizona and nationally over Taser's financial influence on municipal employees who are involved with purchases of the stun guns. In Chandler and Minneapolis, police officers have been criticized for their ties to the company.
Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said Siebert is the only council member the company has paid as a consultant.
"The city of San Francisco desired the input of a major city council member's experience with a large deployment of (Tasers)," he said.
The company has paid hundreds of police officers to be instructors and given stock options to some officers in return for their support of the gun.
Taser Chief Executive Officer Rick Smith has said that training program has been responsible for the company's success in sales to police departments.
Critics say payments to city employees have created a conflict of interest, with officers promoting the stun gun and repeating Taser's assurances of safety while minimizing risks.
The potential conflicts "have the direct consequence of shielding the company from scrutiny," said John Crew, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in northern California who specializes in police practices.
"A major problem with these stun guns has been the exaggerated claims of safety coming from Taser . . . And they have been using police officers and other public officials to tout the safety of their stun guns."
Scottsdale-based Taser International has armed nearly a third of America's 18,000 law enforcement agencies with stun guns. For years, Taser claimed its weapon never caused a death or serious injury. But an ongoing investigation by The Arizona Republic has linked the stun gun to at least 12 deaths nationwide and to the injuries of several police officers.
Those deaths have left cities nationwide rethinking Taser purchases and deployments as police departments, city council members and state legislators raise concerns about how the gun is used and the need for independent medical information on the stun gun.
Smith maintains that Tasers have never caused a death or serious injury and cites more than 90 studies by universities, the military and police departments that he says support Taser's safety claim.
San Francisco effort
When the San Francisco Police Commission considered buying the stun guns in 2004, Siebert was hired by Taser to promote the weapon and address any concerns based on his experience with the stun guns in Phoenix.
"In the middle of last year, (Taser) asked me to tell our story to the San Francisco police," Siebert said.
He said he did not tell the commission during public meetings that he was being paid by Taser, but, "it was no secret that I was helping Taser. That was very clear."
Siebert said he made two trips to San Francisco with Taser officials that involved meeting privately with some commissioners and participating in a public sales presentation. He said he agreed to take the job only if Taser agreed to let him talk about the safeguards Phoenix put in place to control the gun's use.
"We were cautious," he said, citing the department's extensive training and review procedures. "We weren't following someone else's lead. We were the leader."
San Francisco Police Commissioner Peter Keane said Siebert and other Taser officials emphasized the stun gun's safety while minimizing deaths and injuries.
"Their position was that the device was completely safe," said Keane, a law professor and former dean at Golden Gate University. "We found it a little bit curious that a sitting city official was being brought along as part of the sales pitch."
Keane and others at the meeting said Siebert emphasized his position as a Phoenix City Council member.
San Francisco did not buy any stun guns as the result of the presentation.
Siebert said that he was paid on an hourly basis and that his financial relationship with Taser began in June and ended in October. He said he did not receive stock options and has not worked for Taser since.
Acting City Attorney Gary Verburg said Siebert's position with Taser did not violate any state statutes or city policies. "He has done everything in compliance with the statute," Verburg said. "He has declared a conflict and refused to participate in any decision involving Taser."
He said the law doesn't dictate where you can work.
The city's ethics policy cautions public officials about conflicts: "You should not be involved in any activity which might be seen as conflicting with the responsibilities of your position. The people of Phoenix have a right to expect that you act with independence and fairness toward all groups and not favor a few individuals or yourself."
The state Attorney General's Office and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office investigate allegations of conflicts, which can carry criminal penalties.
Tim Delaney, director of the non-profit Center for Leadership, Ethics and Public Service in Phoenix, said there are gray areas in the state's conflict-of-interest laws.
Delaney, who has served as Arizona solicitor general and a chief deputy attorney general, says officials have a right to make a living while in public office. But, "you don't want them to make a living off of public service," he said.
Siebert publicly disclosed his financial relationship with Taser in a January filing that requires city officials to document assets, property, business interests and any compensation over $1,000 during the previous year.
Siebert, 43, was elected to the City Council in 1995 and represents District 1, which includes most of northwest Phoenix.
Siebert's long-time support of Taser is a matter of public record. He took credit for bringing the stun gun to Phoenix in a 2003 newsletter to constituents: "At my request, the Police Department introduced the (Taser) in a pilot program as a less-lethal weapon. During a nine-month period, when the Taser was used, the number of officers and suspects injured from use of force decreased dramatically."
Siebert's newsletter borrowed language verbatim from Taser's sales brochures and described the stun gun as "a non-injury-causing weapon."
At the time, Siebert was running for re-election and Taser executives and their spouses contributed at least $1,750 to his campaign, according to campaignreports for 2003.
Public records show that Siebert first asked the Police Department to look into Tasers in 2001. Ultimately, the city purchased 1,348 stun guns, making Phoenix the nation's largest police department to arm all of its officers with the gun.
Taser officials have highlighted Phoenix as a role model for other departments considering purchasing the stun gun. They point to Phoenix in sales presentations, press releases and interviews, citing the reduction in police shootings and officer and suspect injuries after the Taser deployment.
Taser defends its payment to Siebert and police officers across the country. Active duty officers are often paid to act as trainers for companies that sell weapons to police departments.
"It is an industry standard and an officer safety issue that police equipment providers utilize active duty police trainers as consultants to provide training," Tuttle said, adding that such trainers "do not attempt to sell or market the stun gun."
The officers, called "master instructors," are paid as much as $450 to host a two-day training session for other law enforcement agencies. In some cases, those master instructors have been given stock options.
In December, Minneapolis Sgt. Ron Bellendier quit his department after questions were raised about his role in Taser purchases while moonlighting as one of Taser's master instructors. The police chief said Bellendier, now a sales manager for Taser in the Midwest, did not have permission to work for Taser.
In Arizona, a former Chandler police officer was the subject of a conflict-of-interest investigation after the City Council spent $193,000 on Tasers based on his recommendation two years ago.
The officer, Jim Halsted, now is a regional sales manager for Taser. Minutes from the March 27, 2003, Chandler City Council meeting show that Halsted made a presentation and urged purchase of the stun guns.
"Sergeant Halsted also commented on the medical safety aspects of the equipment and reported that the Tasers will not result in any physical injury . . . (Halsted) reported that not one death has been attributed to the use of this equipment."
Halsted received stock options, payments and a trip to Hawaii from Taser. The city's investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Siebert said he did not know about the Chandler or Minneapolis cases. But he said his situation is different.
He said he has no doubts that Tasers have been involved in deaths and injuries and thinks Taser should make all of that public. He also said the police have benefited from the stun gun and his job as a councilman is to protect the public and officers. "It is good and healthy to have a debate. I still believe, with the proper training . . . it is an effective tool."