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Jones vs. Pickler and the public’s right to know

    David Pickler was a late arrival to Tuesday's Unified School Board meeting. Martavius Jones had been keeping an eye out for him, having concluded that he could not go forward with what is being a labeled a "bombshell" if his fellow board member was not present.

    "There is no way that I can make these assertions without him being present," Jones said Wednesday in an interview with The New Tri-State Defender. "I would have waited until the next meeting."

    Pickler showed up and Jones made his move, introducing a resolution with this kicker: "Therefore be it resolved that the Shelby County School Board of Education requests the immediate resignation of Mr. David Pickler for failure to publicly disclose the apparent conflict of interest and direct or indirect benefit and/or personal gain received by virtue of his public office."

    The justification, according to Jones, has to do with funds that school districts put aside under the Tennessee School Boards Association. That money covers the liability of other post-employment benefits (OPEB) amounts.

    In his resolution, Jones asserts that Pickler and/or Pickler's financial services company raked in $105 thousand in fees ($30,000) and commissions ($75,000) related to OPEB funds totaling $12 million.

    Jones pressed forward despite a caution from Dorsey Hopson, the school board attorney, that he could be stepping onto shaky legal ground, perhaps opening himself up to a defamation of character suit. A 24-page packet that he is certain – then and now – puts him on sound footing fortified his resolution.

    "There is not a single thing in my resolution that is not based on evidence. The stuff that I put in the resolution comes from information included in those 24 pages that are immediately after the resolution," Jones said.

    "For Mr. Hopson to provide that, I'm fine with it because I know good and well that I never say Mr. Pickler stole anything. I never say that he did anything criminal. I never said he did any type of embezzlement that was going on; none of that. My comments for the most part last night were limited to what was in that resolution."

    Board members, several of whom were audibly unhappy about Jones' move, balked at adding the resolution to the evening's agenda, eventually deciding to set up a three-member ethics panel to weigh the allegations against Pickler.

    "I'm fine with that," Jones said of the ethics panel. "It is out of my hands. It's in the public domain, which is where it belongs. If you are sitting on a public body and an employee of yours or your firm is doing business with that public body, the public needs to know.

    "And if you didn't (inform the public), I think you need to resign your office," said Jones.

    None of the drama, he said, would have unfolded had it not been for an error. Here's the deal:

    Jones received a packet of information from the Tennessee School Boards Association, including a memorandum dated July 20, 2012. It came from Leigh Mills, the TSBA director of finance, and is addressed to "Martavius Jones, Memphis City Board Chairman" and "Kriner Cash, Memphis City Superintendent."

    The error is that Jones was not the school board chairman at that time and should never have gotten the information packet, which noted on the memorandum page that TSBA had received the $12 million contribution and invested with American Funds. It included a breakdown of the investments.

    A financial adviser, Jones knew his way around the financial data provided. He noted that the financial adviser was listed as Teresa Bailey, which did not ring any bells. An additional notation under her name listed "LPL Financial LLC" and an address "1135 Halle Park Cir Collierville, Tn 38107-7083." That did ring a bell.

    Flipping through several pages, Jones came across a page with Bailey's photo and information identifying her as "executive vice president and senior planning partner, Pickler Wealth Advisers."

    Pickler is the president and chief executive officer.

    One board member, Mike Wissman, noted during the resolution debate that the FBI had contacted him, perhaps as much as eight weeks ago. Wissman said the FBI agents called the inquiry a "witch hunt."

    In his interview with the TSD, Jones said, "I think we get that information from the FBI, not a school board member. Let the FBI tell us that."

    During the board's debate on the resolution, Pickler offered no comment. According to published reports, he later committed to preparing a formal response to the assertions made by Jones. He reportedly acknowledged that the FBI had checked into the matter and found no basis for going forward. And, he is quoted as saying that he was disappointed in how Jones moved on the matter.

    Asked why he chose to go the resolution route, as opposed to maybe going to the president of the board, or something like that, Jones said, "We are conducting the public's business. Do I conduct the public's business in a private meeting. No.

    "The public's business needs to be discussed, deliberated, acted upon in public. The disclosure requirement is not incumbent upon me. I'm not benefiting from it, I don't have a financial interest in it."

    Jones said prior to being elected to the school board, he attended meetings, learning at one of them that MCS had a $10 million pension plan that he subsequently went after as financial adviser. He didn't get. Since that time, he said he has made no effort to land such contract.

    "Absolutely not," he said, "because I sit on the board now."

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