First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) Vice Chairman Jeff Johnson has resigned from the board of directors of Sonim Technologies, Inc., a public safety device maker, shortly after the company announced the appointment.
“Today, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that FirstNet Board Vice Chairman Jeff Johnson has resigned from his position as a member of the board of Sonim Technologies,” NTIA said in a statement released Saturday. “While he consulted with ethics officials before joining the board of Sonim, and received guidance on the proper recusals, Mr. Johnson determined that FirstNet’s mission would best be served by his resignation in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. We thank Mr. Johnson for his service and dedication to FirstNet.”
NTIA, at which FirstNet is housed, declined to provide details on specifics on recusal guidance provided to Mr. Johnson and whether NTIA believes that, in retrospect, the ethics guidance he was given was lacking. FirstNet declined to comment and Mr. Johnson, who is chief executive officer of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, and FirstNet Chairwoman Sue Swenson did not respond to e-mails from TR Daily seeking comment.
On Thursday, Sonim issued a press release announcing the appointment of Mr. Johnson and two others to the company’s board.
Two of Sonim’s devices have been approved for the FirstNet system being built by AT&T, Inc., FirstNet’s network partner. As part of its role in overseeing the construction and maintenance of the nationwide public safety broadband network, FirstNet approves devices to operate on the system, one of the reasons that Mr. Johnson’s role on the Sonim board would seem to be in conflict with his FirstNet duties.
FirstNet’s ethics rules stipulate that employees can’t “hold financial interests that conflict with the conscientious performance” of their duties; can’t “engage in outside employment or activities … that conflict with official Government duties and responsibilities”; can’t “use public office for private gain”; and must “endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or ethical standards set forth in ethics regulations. Whether particular situations create an appearance that the law or these standards have been violated shall be determined from the perspective of a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts.”
More specifically, the rules say that employees can’t “hold a position as an officer or board member of an organization whose financial interests can be affected by performance of your Federal duties (unless such duties can be easily reassigned).”
Mr. Johnson’s initial decision to join the Sonim board raised some eyebrows today of some FirstNet observers.
“A blatant conflict of interest would be putting it mildly,” Stephen Whitaker, a plaintiff in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that sought FirstNet records, said of Mr. Johnson’s service on the Sonim board. “Johnson, if he failed to recuse himself, would be in the position of holding sensitive proprietary information on plans and timelines for both AT&T and Sonim and the public is supposed to take his word for it that no advantages are gained.”
“The DoC Ethics Guidelines read to me as if such service on the Board of an integral supplier of FirstNet equipment and technology is strictly prohibited,” Mr. Whitaker added. “But in today’s Washington Beltway, it’s all a matter of interpretation among swamp creatures.”
Andy Seybold, a public safety advocate and former FirstNet consultant who noted that Mr. Johnson was one of many public safety advocates who helped get FirstNet established by Congress, said he “would have expected him to turn down the Sonim board of directors’ position until his term at FirstNet was done and he was not going to seek re-election.”
A former public safety official said it would appear that serving on the Sonim board would be a conflict of interest for Mr. Johnson, but this person also said that it would “require a ruling by counsel to be sure. These things are never clear cut within the government.”- Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org