Politics & Government

Controversy swirls around company looking to sell drones to Macon-Bibb

A July 15 news release from the company that wants to sell Macon-Bibb County government a $5.7 million drone package erroneously says the deal already has been struck.

But the full commission has not signed off on an agreement.

A day earlier, on July 14, the Macon-Bibb County Commission’s Economic and Community Development Committee had agreed to send to the full commission the deal with Olaeris, which would supply the county with a fleet of drones.

Earlier this week, the commission tabled any decision about moving forward with buying drones.

Thursday, a website raising money for Olaeris featured a headline stating the company had the “world’s first county-wide drone order for $5.7M.” The website, fundable.com, still included a link to the incorrect news release. Olaeris CEO Ted Lindsley acknowledged to The Telegraph he had signed off on issuing the release.

Lindsley said he mistakenly thought the committee’s vote was an agreement to move forward with the deal.

When asked why he didn’t remove the incorrect news release from the website, he said he has been inundated with calls and emails regarding proposals on the table in Macon and Greensboro, North Carolina, and that it had slipped his mind.

“I’m not just dealing with Macon and Greensboro, but also a couple of other cities,” he said. Lindsley has not disclosed the other cities he is courting.

Lindsley told The Telegraph he would remove the headline, but he said he didn’t think the media should report that it was posted online.

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Gary Bechtel said he finds it strange that a company proposing a multi-million dollar deal would be using a crowdsourcing website. He also said it’s disconcerting to see the website proclaiming the deal with Macon-Bibb County has been finalized.

“If we have $5.7 million to spend on this, I would really appreciate a little more courtesy as related to the accuracy of these reports,” Bechtel said.

Commissioner Mallory Jones said he is somewhat bothered by the misleading headline on the website.

“I think maybe he’s embellishing their product,” Jones said. “I don’t know if he’s done anything unethical, but we need to know more about the company and the product.”

The website isn’t the only controversy dogging Lindsley.

He has contended that his company is “aligned” with the American Civil Liberties Union in regard to privacy concerns about drones.

But the ACLU has accused Lindsley of misrepresenting the facts.

During a recent meeting with Macon-Bibb commissioners, Lindsley told them his company was the only drone manufacturer aligned with the ACLU.

After receiving media reports of that meeting, the ACLU responded with a letter demanding that he stop misrepresenting their relationship and using the ACLU logo in his presentations to local government.

On Thursday, a national ACLU spokeswoman said the organization sent Lindsley a second letter about Lindsley’s claim that miscommunication between the ACLU’s national headquarters and state offices led to confusion about the relationship.

Stacy Sullivan, ACLU associate director for strategic communications, said the organization has not had a relationship with Lindsley outside of a joint op-ed about privacy concerns that was published in a North Carolina newspaper in 2014.

“He was using the ACLU endorsement as a way to prop up his company, and we don’t do that for any company,” she said.

Talks between Olaeris and Macon-Bibb officials began last fall, with commissioners learning about the potential project in a March meeting that was closed to the public.

The issue was first made public at the July 14 committee meeting.

Olaeris wants to sell local government at least 15 drones that could be used to respond to emergencies and natural disasters. Lindsley said the drones would have the capability to reach any part of the county within a few minutes and could assess dangerous situations even before emergency personnel arrived.

Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said Thursday he needs more answers about the drones before deciding how much they could help his office.

Drones could be a resource for incidents like finding a burglary suspect, he said, but they couldn’t replace the role a deputy provides.

“I think they can bring some efficiencies, but I don’t think they’re going to be the great manpower saver,” Davis said.

To contact writer Stanley Dunlap, call 744-4623.