Damien Patton is the the 47-year-old co-founder and CEO of the rising data gathering startup Banjo. The combination of the company’s success and its founders’ inspiring life story has made him the subject of many tech media and business publication profiles, for it is the kind of gutter to boardroom story on individual bootstrapping America has always celebrated. He has described an abusive childhood that caused him to run away from home at age 15. He joined the U.S. Navy, then worked as a NASCAR mechanic before learning the craft of crime-scene investigation. He learned to code, and then became a co-founder of Banjo as he raised nearly $223 million in venture capital for the Utah-based company.
However, Americans don’t like their rags-to-riches stories to begin too deep in the gutter. The tech news outlet OneZero uncovered transcripts of courtroom testimony, sworn statements, and more than 1,000 pages of federal records revealing that before he turned to coding, Patton was a member of the Dixie Knights, a Ku Klux Klan group active in the Nashville area in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and not a passive one. He was was involved in shooting up a synagogue, for example. Understandably, this detail was something Patton did not highlight in his inspirational speeches before aspiring entrepreneurs.
The question is, now what? What does this mean today? What should it mean?
Following the report, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced that the state would cancel a $20.7 million state contract with Banjo. Quickly, Banjo moved to try to get ahead of the business and public relations disaster that is sure to come. It announced on the company’s website that it will suspend all contracts, refrain from handling any government data and suspend all services for government entities until an independent audit is completed by an outside, presumably irreproachable third party.
“Banjo believes that any company working with the government should be subject to audits and oversight. The audit will have direct oversight by the state and will look to ensure there’s no bias in the technology, that Banjo is not a surveillance company and that all data for the state is being handled per the contract. Banjo’s mission is to save lives and minimize human suffering to help first responders in emergency situations while not invading people’s civil liberties and rights, We are looking forward to the audit to show that we can build technology to help save lives and protect people’s rights.”
Earlier, Patton posted a statement of his own, writing, “Today, Medium OneZero posted an article that focused on a dark and despicable period in my life that I am extremely remorseful about and sorry for. I am deeply ashamed of my actions and do not hold any of these beliefs, which I find abhorrent and indefensible.” Then he added a more extensive apology:
I am deeply ashamed of this time in my life and feel sincere remorse and deep regret for my affiliation with hateful groups whose actions and beliefs are completely despicable, immoral and indefensible. I am sorry to all those who I have hurt and offended and understand that no apology will undo what I have done.
For the last 30 years, I have worked to right this grievous mistake as a lost, misguided adolescent kid. Through service to my country, dedication to my friends of all faiths, and building a business that employs amazing employees of all faiths, backgrounds and perspectives, I have committed myself to becoming an accepting and upstanding member of my community. 32 years ago I was a lost, scared, and vulnerable child. I won’t go into detail, but the reasons I left home at such a young age are unfortunately not unique; I suffered abuse in every form. I did terrible things and said despicable and hateful things, including to my own Jewish mother, that today I find indefensibly wrong, and feel extreme remorse for. I have spent most of my adult lifetime working to make amends for this shameful period in my life.
In my teens, I dropped out of school, lived on the streets, ate out of dumpsters and raised money panhandling. I was desperate and afraid. I was taken in by skinhead gangs and white supremacist organizations. Over the course of a few years, I did many things as part of those groups that I am profoundly ashamed of and sorry about. Eventually, I was able to get myself away from this world while serving in the United States Navy. This turned my life around. While serving my country, I worked with law enforcement agencies in hate group prosecutions and left this world behind.
Since then, I have tried and failed to completely accept and come to terms with how I, a child of Jewish heritage, became part of such a hateful, racist group. One thing I have done, through therapy and outreach, I have learned to forgive that 15 year old boy who, despite the absence of ideological hate, was lured into a dark and evil world. For all of those I have hurt, and that this revelation will hurt, I’m sorry. No apology will undo what I have done.
I have worked every day to be a responsible member of society. I’ve built companies, employed hundreds and have worked to treat everyone around me equally. In recent years, I’ve sought to create technologies that stop human suffering and save lives without violating privacy. I know that I will never be able to erase my past but I work hard every day to make up for mistakes. This is something I will never stop doing.
I think we have to rate Patton’s apology first rate by the standards of the Ethics Alarms apology scale:
An apology motivated by the realization that one’s past conduct was unjust, unfair, and wrong, constituting an unequivocal admission of wrongdoing as well as regret, remorse and contrition, as part of a sincere effort to make amends and seek forgiveness.
Now let’s return to the question of whether any of this will be enough to save Patton’s career and his company, assuming that the independent audit finds Banjo to be everything Patton says it is.
My guess is no, for ethical reasons and unethical ones.
It is true that Americans like to at least give lip-service to the power of contrition and value of forgiveness, particularly when the one being forgiven is a relative, friend or ally. However, overt racism, especially today, is one sin that the current culture is not going to forgive, no matter what the individual involved says or does, and the time passed doesn’t matter. One of the nation’s most effective liberal Supreme Court justices, the late Hugo Black, was once a Klan member; imagine the confirmation hearings of a judge with Black’s background today.
Is this unfair, in a case like Patton’s? I’m not sure it is. The way I have always approached such situations is from the perspective of trust: given a choice between trusting a company founded by a former Klan member and a reasonably equivalent company that is not, I will regard the latter as more trustworthy and a more responsible choice every time. Indeed, I would use Patton’s case to confront Barack Obama and other so-called “Ban the Box” advocates, who claim they don’t believe that a criminal record should undermine an ex-con’s employment prospects. Really? How about Klan membership?
Meanwhile, there are groups and people who will want to see Banjo destroyed—it is unfortunate that the company formed by an ex-white supremacist is named for a musical instrument associated with minstrel shows, don’t you think? For that matter, it would also be nice if he wasn’t named “Damien,” with its satanic associations, and didn’t look like a member of the Duck Dynasty cast–and its founder sent into the metaphorical desert to wander forever. They will flex their political muscles to destroy both man and business just to show they can. Consider what any government client that hires the company is facing: boycotts, constant scrutiny, race-baiting, lawsuits and crushing scrutiny, conspiracy theories. It won’t be worth it.
Patton is finished; there is nothing he can do about it. His company? Maybe if it makes a big deal about firing Patton and grandstanding statements about how they are removing a vile blight forever. I doubt it will work. I think the company is doomed too.
All the contrition and atonement imaginable won’t lead to forgiveness and mercy with this set of facts. The hard law of business and human nature is that when trust is sufficiently shattered, it can never be restored.