Both men are financial advisers. In December, Jones surprised members of the Unified School Board with a formal resolution (nine "whereas" paragraphs plus one "therefore be it resolved") requesting Pickler's immediate resignation "for failure to publicly disclose the apparent conflict of interest and direct or indirect benefit and/or personal gain" from his public office.
This week Pickler formally replied with a point-by-point rebuttal from an attorney he hired, Stephen Shields, plus a personal letter and a warning that "I am reserving all legal options to remedy the harm" to his reputation. The letter from Shields says "causes of action such as false light and defamation do exist, of course, but an assessment of the viability of such causes is beyond the scope of this analysis."
Pickler and Jones are holdovers from the old county and city school boards, and often appear in media stories and public forums. The charge and counter-charge have landed in the lap of the unified board's three-member Ethics Committee which, like all things board related, is newly created and finding its bearings. The upshot: one more thing to divide and distract the board as it tries to create a unified school system by August.
The crux of the complicated complaint is that Pickler and/or his firm, Pickler Wealth Advisers, benefited from commissions for a $12 million school board investment in the Tennessee School Board Association Trust at American Funds, a mutual fund company. Pickler is former secretary/treasurer of the TSBA board of directors and an investment advisor to the trust since 2009.
"It is the opinion of legal counsel that allegations made by Mr. Jones are simply inaccurate," Pickler says in a letter to board member and committee chair Teresa Jones. "If I had any conflict of interest at all, it was at best indirect in nature and that in any event my outside interests were the subject of disclosures that fully met the requirements of state law and board policy."
He asks the board to request that Jones withdraw his "ill-conceived" resolution and apologize for the distractions and discomfort to Pickler and his business partner.
Jones zeroed in on a June 26, 2012 vote of the school board on the general fund budget for Memphis City Schools. In his self-described "independent legal analysis," Shields says the contribution to the trust fund was from the 2011-2012 budget, not the budget that was voted on in June, and therefore Pickler did not vote on it and no disclosure was required.
Pickler made disclosures to the Shelby County Board in 2009 when there was a trust item on the agenda. And he disclosed his role as a broker during a unified board committee meeting in November, 2012 and again as part of a board audit in September.
Jones said he would not have learned of the alleged disclosure problem but for a letter from the TSBA finance director in July on which he was mistakenly copied.
The only certain outcome of this is an end to the veneer of collegiality and mutual respect that marked the first two years of the Pickler-Jones relationship. The charge is a serious one, and the gloves are off now.