- Category: GENERAL
- Published on Saturday, 28 July 2012 16:32
- Written by Elombah.com
Many strive to achieve the American dream just once in their lifetimes. But Vernon Jackson has already lived two versions of the American dream: invention and reinvention. A 2006 photo shows Vernon Jackson leaving the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. He later went to prison for three years on bribery charges. Once a tech millionaire,
this pastor from Louisville, Ky., thought his telecommunications device would bring him wealth and success. And it did, but only for a time. Ultimately, his business dealings landed him in prison.
Vernon Jackson leaving the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., in 2006. He later went to prison for three years on bribery charges.
Jackson's story is about making it big, blowing it even bigger — and coming back, renewed. Today, he can laugh about his roller-coaster-like transformation.
These days, Jackson spends his Friday mornings with a Bible study group in the lobby of a suburban Holiday Inn. The group is made of up middle-aged black men, pastors and professionals. In his own words, "to go from a master to a servant, [Once] I gave orders ... and now I take orders" — from God.
Jackson grew up in humble circumstances in Charlotte, N.C., but says he caught a break at 17 with an AT&T affirmative-action program. He was trained in electronics and sent to work in Louisville.
"We had to do better than the majority because we were considered minority. Expected to fail," Jackson says. "So we didn't have the choice to fail. So we insisted on whatever they threw to us, we would make it work."
He became a network supervisor, and did well. He felt comfortable and secure.
After 20 years at AT&T, Jackson struck out on his own. He had an idea. His invention made copper wire — old-fashioned telephone lines — broadband-capable.
"I saw the need," Jackson says. "I saw an opportunity and I was driven by the fact that I believed it was doable."
It was the 1990s, and the U.S. economy was in the throes of the telecom bubble.
Jackson started a company that went public, obtained a patent and started making his device. He figured black neighborhoods and African countries would be the last to be rewired with modern fiber optics. Those communities, he thought, were on the wrong end of a technological divide, and he had the device to bridge it. With his invention, he thought, the poor could get access to teleconferencing and email — and he could get rich.
Jackson's company was valued at more than $1 billion at its initial public offering in 1995. His personal wealth was soon valued at around $30 million. But between competition and problems with financing, the company went broke.
A Fateful Partnership
So Jackson started a second company, iGate. But, again, there were financing problems. Jackson recalls a conversation with a potential investor who was white.
"He said, 'Let me tell you something. Because of the color of your skin, you will never get the money you need. You need me, or somebody with my complexion,'" Jackson recounts.
Jackson says that conversation made him angry — and even more determined to succeed. But the company still needed an angel investor. Jackson soon found an angel: Rep. William Jefferson, D-La.
Although his benefactor didn't have money, as a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Jefferson had power.
"His relationship to me was to make sure that my products and services got installed in ... places he had influence," Jackson says. "Jefferson was a very influential and powerful man."
But he was a corrupt one, as well — known to his detractors in Louisiana politics as "Dollar Bill."
But Jackson says he had never heard that, and that he trusted Jefferson. The congressman became iGate's advocate, drumming up business for the company in the U.S. and Nigeria.
Little did either man know, Jefferson was being monitored at the time in an FBI sting operation — and Jackson was caught up in it.
In 2001, after Jefferson had helped iGate win some business, the congressman suggested the two men begin a new relationship.
"He says, 'I've really done all that I can do, but you need to be marketed at a high level. So, I can't do that per se, but there's a company owned by my wife and my daughters who do just that,'" Jackson recounts Jefferson telling him.
Jackson started paying that company $7,500 a month, and transferring shares of stock, as well.
"I remember saying something [like], 'You sure this is OK?'" Jackson recalls asking Jefferson. "Because I saw a little red flag. And he said, 'Of course! I wouldn't steer you wrong. This is my wife, my daughters.'"
Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) and his wife, Andrea.
In retrospect, Jackson says he was, in effect, bribing a public official. But at the time, he says, he didn't realize it.
The arrangement went on for five years, until a night in late May 2006, when the FBI raided Jefferson's office. The congressman was indicted, later tried and convicted. He is remembered as the congressman with $90,000 in cash in his freezer.
Jackson pleaded guilty, testified against Jefferson and went to prison for three years. Along the way, he says, he found religion in dreams and visions. He declared himself a pastor, ordained by God.
But what makes an otherwise law-abiding businessman write his own ticket to federal prison? Why say "yes" when Jefferson told him to sign a deal with his wife?
Jackson calls it "the moment of truth."
"What's in one's heart determines what one does," he says. "We had had so much difficulty getting to this point, in terms of all the raising the money and so many hurdles we had overcome."
Knowing there were people willing to pay for their product and feeling confident it would be a success, Jackson says he felt he had to move forward.
"We know it's worth billions, so the shareholders will do well," Jackson says. "We're looking at our own glory, if you will, we will do well. And so you say, 'You know what? I'm going to go down this road, and see where it takes us.'"
Jackson says he knew he had a product that could do good.
"You've struggled and struggled and struggled, and now you're here, and you see all the good you can do ... You know you have something here that can really change people's lives."
In the end, it was Jackson's life that changed.
He's at home a lot these days. He takes care of his wife, whose back was broken in a car crash. He says he does some consulting. And his device to make broadband connections over copper wire is still being marketed, now by a firm in Houston.
Jackson keeps a white Christmas tree in his living room, even in the middle of summer.
It stands for Christ, he says. He has a problem, Jackson says, of celebrating him just once a year.
For a man who once had a mansion in the works, who was worth millions and dreamed of billions, and who used to hobnob with Nigerian high rollers, Jackson's life these days is modest.
And it is a very American second act: The self-inflicted wounds of an outsized ambition, bathed in faith — a different kind of American dream.
Jackson’s friend, former Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson was found guilty of 11 felonies, including bribery and racketeering. The federal jury that delivered its verdict four years and two days after FBI agents found $90,000 in his freezer.
But it was less than a complete victory for the Justice Department.
During the trial, prosecutors laid out five years' worth of deals in which Jefferson wanted payments from business people. The jurors saw a crisp FBI photo of the cash in his home freezer. They also saw a video of Jefferson collecting the money — the moment when the Democratic congressman reached into the trunk of an FBI informant's car and took a briefcase filled with the greenbacks.
The informant, a businesswoman, wore a wire during the handoff and at restaurant meals with Jefferson. She recorded incriminating conversations about business deals in Africa and the payments he expected. Neither she nor the congressman testified at the trial.
The government's case took eight weeks.
The defense case, by contrast, took a couple of hours and argued that Jefferson had been acting as a business consultant, not a member of Congress carrying out official acts.
The jury considered 16 counts against Jefferson and convicted him on 11.
Afterward, Joseph Persichini, assistant director of the FBI's Washington office, told reporters, "The people of New Orleans need to know that they gave Congressman Jefferson his power, and he used his greed to attain money."
In 2010, a two-year US Senate investigation into foreign corruption shed new light on two key players in that infamous scandal, one of Washington’s most recent — Atiku Abubakar and his wife, Jennifer Douglas Abubakar.
Abubakar was the former Nigerian vice president who former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) was planning to bribe with $100,000 provided to him by an FBI informant, Lori Mody. Mody, a wealthy businesswoman, gave the money to Jefferson in a parking lot in July 2005, a transaction secretly videotaped by the FBI. When federal agents raided Jefferson’s home in Virginia two days later, they found $90,000 in his freezer.
Former vice president of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar, and wife, Jennifer Douglas
An undercover FBI special agent had driven Jefferson and Mody to Douglas' home in Potomac, Md., to meet with Abubakar just weeks before Mody gave Jefferson the money, according to legal documents filed by prosecutors. Abubakar was reportedly seeking as much $500,000 to help a company that Jefferson had a secret stake in win a lucrative Nigerian telecom contract.
A federal investigation of Jefferson’s activities revealed a wide-ranging corruption scheme, and following a lengthy legal fight, the Louisiana Democrat was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison, the harshest punishment ever handed out to an ex-lawmaker. Neither Douglas nor Abubakar has been charged with any wrongdoing.
However, the Senate investigation alleges that Douglas and Abubakar brought “over $40 million in suspect funds into the United States” from 2000 to 2008 — a prime example, according to investigators, of the ease with which so-called politically exposed persons, foreign officials and their family members, friends and business associates, can move money into U.S. financial institutions without explaining where the money came from.
The investigation also “substantiated” a $2 million-plus transfer from Siemens AG, a German electronics company, into a bank account controlled by Douglas. Siemens pleaded guilty in Dec. 2008 to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and paid $1.6 billion in civil and criminal penalties.
Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, want Congress and the Obama administration to tighten restrictions on moving money into the U.S., and new report is designed to build support for such a move.
Jefferson’s lawyers unsuccessfully sought to depose Abubakar and Douglas, as well another Nigerian businessman, as witnesses for the Louisiana Democrat’s trial, but they refused to return to the United States to be deposed or testify in the case.
With tens of millions of dollars from shadowy offshore companies at her disposal, Douglas — Abubakar’s fourth wife — lived a lavish lifestyle in the U.S., according to the report. Her personal expenses sometimes ran to as high as $90,000 per month.
Douglas also spent $14 million on the American University of Nigeria, a Western-style university Abubakar set up in northern Nigeria. The school was affiliated with American University in Washington, where Douglas, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Nigeria, received a doctorate in international relations.
AU officials told Senate investigators that they never questioned where the funds came from because Douglas had hired a Washington lawyer with whom the school had a long relationship. AU was also under no legal obligation to determine the source of money.
The source of Abubakar’s fortune is unclear. He spent roughly 20 years as a Nigerian customs official, starting businesses on the side while still working for the government. He left the Nigerian customs office in 1989 and went into business. Abubakar told the BBC in 2007 that he had gotten wealthy “through wise investments, hard work and sheer luck of being at the right place at the right time.”
In 1999, Abubakar was elected vice president of Nigeria, a post he held for the next eight years. Abubakar created a blind trust to control his investments. Through a complicated series of moves, the blind trust was taken over by a shell company, which in 2003 started sending millions of dollars to U.S. banks for use by Douglas and an American attorney hired by the couple, Edward Weidenfield.
The Senate report notes that Abubakar’s name came up during the Jefferson trial, “but no evidence was introduced showing that Mr. Abubakar had actually sought or accepted a bribe from the Congressman. Mr. Abubakar asserted his innocence, and that his name had been invoked in the matter to ruin his reputation and prevent him from winning the presidency in Nigeria.”
Abubakar declined to be interviewed by Senate investigators.
Douglas now lives in the United Arab Emirates, serving as a professor of political science at the American University of Sharjah, according to the Levin-Coburn report. She too declined to be interviewed by panel investigators.