First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) Vice Chairman Jeff Johnson joined the board of directors of Sonim Technologies, Inc., last summer, although the appointment was not announced until last week, Sonim President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Plaschke told TR Daily today. Mr. Johnson’s resignation from the board was announced over the weekend.
Mr. Plaschke said that Sonim and Mr. Johnson consulted with legal staff at the Commerce Department before Mr. Johnson joined the board to ensure that it was permitted. They were told it was under certain conditions.
Sonim’s general counsel had two conversations with a Commerce Department ethics lawyer and was told that the appointment could proceed as long as FirstNet had no contractual relationship with Sonim, Mr. Johnson received “reasonable” compensation as a board member, and he recused himself if the board ever discussed Sonim specifically, according to Mr. Plaschke. Sonim is a vendor to AT&T and does not have a contractual relationship with FirstNet. Mr. Plaschke declined to say how much Mr. Johnson was paid to serve on the board.
But after the news release on the appointment was issued last week, the Commerce Department indicated that the situation had changed, he added.
Mr. Plaschke suggested the difference since the initial conversations about appointing Mr. Johnson to the board was that “we were much larger or much more … important in the ecosystem than maybe we were a year ago.”
“It was unexpected,” he said of the development. But he said Mr. Johnson said all along that his first priority is public safety, and that “to the extent that him being on our board [would] be misconstrued as a conflict of interest, I wouldn’t want him on our board.”
He said he never thought that Mr. Johnson’s appointment posed a conflict or an appearance of a conflict, saying, “We are one of many vendors selling into the public safety community.”
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 could be seen to be in conflict with his FirstNet duties.
Mr. Johnson did not respond to a request for comment from TR Daily.
As TR Daily reported yesterday (TR Daily, April 23), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, where FirstNet is housed, issued a statement on Saturday announcing that Mr. Johnson “has resigned from his position as a member of the board of Sonim Technologies. 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 declined further comment, and FirstNet declined to comment.— Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org