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October 15th, 2003 Greg Borenstein | News Stories
 

Derry Goes Again

School Board member is subject of ethics probe.

     
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"Had he had but half a brain he'd know what it is he purchased. Because one holds shares in Ford does not mean that one is entitled to [a] Mustang." --Derry Jackson
IMAGE: BEN GUZMAN
Derry Jackson is once again in the spotlight, this time not for his views about Jews and Huck Finn, but for a business proposition.

Two weeks ago, the Oregon Government Standards and Practices Commission opened a preliminary investigation into Jackson's alleged use of his "official position" on the Portland School Board to solicit investors for a start-up technology company. Jackson, a former Freightliner engineer, created Sankofa--an Akan word meaning, approximately, "learning from the past"-- in July 2002. He says it will provide Web services including a "public records portal" that will allow online access to scanned government documents.

Three people contacted by WW said Jackson told them the database would include materials he received as a School Board member.

Bruce Broussard, a local activist and cable TV host, says Jackson offered to sell him $10 shares of stock in the company in exchange for immediate access to the database and a portion of any future profits.

Worried about the ethics of such a venture, Broussard says he asked Jackson for proof that the proposal was legal. Jackson never supplied him with any, he says, so Broussard did not invest.

Portland public-school custodians Don Strong and Dave Vecsi, however, were not so wise.

Strong and Vecsi lost their jobs in July 2002 when the School Board voted to contract with Portland Habilitation Center to take over custodial duties for the schools.

According to Strong and Vecsi, Jackson came to a meeting of the Friends of Custodians, a sub-group of SEIU Local 140 that was dissatisfied with the union leadership.

At the meeting, they say, Jackson read a document he said was signed by former Superintendent Ben Canada and showed that union president Grant Walter conspired with the school district to contract out the custodians. (Walter vigorously denies the allegation.)

After the meeting, Strong and Vecsi approached Jackson about getting a copy of the document. At that point, they say, Jackson offered to sell them each five shares of stock in Sankofa. They each wrote a check for $50 and on Nov. 11 received their certificates of stock. Canada's letter about Walter, however, never showed up. Strong eventually contacted the state ethics office, which led to the investigation.

Whether Jackson broke the law depends on two factors, according to Patrick Hearn, head of the state's government-standards commission. If the documents Jackson proffered were available to him only because of his public office or if Jackson used his position as a public official to promote Sankofa, then he may have violated state ethics rules. Such violations are punishable by fines of $1,000 for each instance plus an additional forfeiture of up to twice the financial gain made through the violations

Jackson, in an email reply to WW's questions, disputed Strong's claim that he linked the purchase of stock to a promise of documents.

"Had he had but half a brain he'd know what it is he purchased," Jackson wrote. "Because one holds shares in Ford does not mean that one is entitled to [a] Mustang. Mr. Strong, as well the entire universe, will be able to access those files once the production website goes live."

Jackson declined to provide additional details about the business, including whether the database would include records given to the School Board.

He dismissed his critics as "lunatics" and predicted he'd soon be cleared by state investigators. "We remain on task and schedule with roll-out activities," he concluded.

State records show that the week before the complaint was filed, Oregon's Corporation Division dissolved Sankofa after the company failed to file its first annual report and to pay the appropriate fee.

The print version and original Web version of this story stated that Jackson was laid off from his job at Freightliner. As WW had previously reported, Jackson voluntarily left the company last year. WW regrets the error.

 
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