UPDATED at 3 p.m. Friday with statement from St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.
The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership said a "lack of transparency" led to the Thursday night termination of a marketing subcontract with the Devin James Group.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Partnership spokeswoman Katy Jamboretz said the agency asked Elasticity, the lead contractor on a North St. Louis County marketing project to remove the James Group from its duties as a relations representative for the city of Ferguson.
The decision was made after the Partnership learned from a Post-Dispatch reporter late Thursday afternoon that the owner of the firm, Devin James, had served time in connection with the shooting death of a Memphis man ten years ago.
The statement said Elasticity, a St. Louis city marketing enterprise, was also unaware of the conviction.
"While we admire his personal growth from difficult circumstances and commend him for his high quality work in Ferguson, it was the lack of information about his background that prompted us to make this move." the statement said. " Mr. James failed to inform us of his prior conviction. He also did not reveal this information to Elasticity when he was hired as a subcontractor. As of today, we are developing new vendor due diligence policies which we believe will prevent similar incidents in the future.”
Devin Sean James, who is overseeing public relations for Ferguson after the Michael Brown shooting, once shot and killed an unarmed man.
James, 32, began working for the city about two weeks after Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson killed the unarmed 18-year-old Brown on Aug. 9.
He has been handling media requests and overseeing Ferguson’s public relations strategy, including arranging a video statement released Thursday in which Ferguson police Chief Thomas Jackson apologized to Brown’s family.
Ferguson officials knew of James’ conviction before they signed a contract with him, Mayor James Knowles III said Thursday.
Knowles said James’ story of coming out of gangs and drugs to found a company has been inspiring and has given city officials an invaluable perspective.
“We haven’t put it out there because he’s not the story,” Knowles said.
James, who was convicted of reckless homicide in Shelby County, Tenn., in 2006, said on Thursday the shooting was in self-defense. He added that he routinely discloses information about his past to his clients.
But a spokeswoman for the partnership agency who is paying his bills said she was unaware of his conviction until Thursday. About two hours later, Katie Jamboretz, of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, said the agency was severing ties with James.
Jamboretz said the agency had subcontracted with the Devin James Group for work on marketing and communications strategies in north St. Louis County.
The Partnership then offered Ferguson the services of the James Group when it became clear that circumstances surrounding Brown’s death were overwhelming the city’s police department and elected officials.
A resolution adopted by the Partnership’s board Aug. 27 says that the amount for Ferguson’s communications strategy will “not exceed $100,000” and will be “funded out of St. Louis County funds.” The partnership, a public agency, was created last year when the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County combined their economic development initiatives.
James was being paid $154.10 an hour, according to city records.
James’ journey through the court system was nearly a decade.
The shooting, which occurred in 2004, was followed by a trial a couple of years later, then an appeal which was denied. In 2009, James was incarcerated at a work farm for 90 days. His probation ended in March this year, he said.
“I had a hard road, man,” James said.
A LIFE OF TURMOIL
James described a childhood filled with “turmoil” and teenage years that included gang membership, homelessness and expulsion from the public school system in Memphis, Tenn. He eventually found his way to the Job Corps which, in addition to providing him with basic employment skills, helped James earn a GED.
James then landed at the University of Memphis, where he discovered a knack for marketing.
While attending school and working at an adult bookstore, James was injured in a 2004 robbery attempt, he said.
James fought with the man and was shot in the shoulder, he said. The incident left him permanently disabled and suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
“I had to get my arm restructured,” he said, unbuttoning his shirt Thursday to reveal a scar.
Months shy of earning degrees in psychology and biomedical engineering, he said he never returned to his studies. Six months later, while recovering, he was involved in the shooting that led to the reckless homicide conviction.
The incident began when two men, Rodney Steward and Marcus Moffitt, nicknamed “Big D,” showed up at his house to rob him, according an account James provided to Memphis police in 2004.
James said Moffitt had a 9 mm handgun and ordered him to lie down because they were going to rob him, court records show.
James fled to another room to get his own handgun, which he said he bought for protection after being robbed. When they saw his weapon they ran out his back door, according to court records. James chased them, and Moffitt starting shooting. James shot back.
When police arrived they found Steward dead in James’ yard with 2.4 grams of crack cocaine in his pocket. Shelby County’s medical examiner said Steward had been shot eight times.
During James’ trial, a Memphis police sergeant testified that all bullet casings at the scene came from James’ gun. The sergeant returned the next day and found “no evidence of bullet strikes inside or outside the house.”
James said on Thursday “a lot of stuff was not recovered at the time.” He called it a “botched investigation” culminating in a trial before a judge with “prior connections” to his family, including convictions of family members in earlier cases.
A SECOND CHANCE
After Brown’s death, Ferguson initially hired Common Ground PR, a Chesterfield firm with white employees. The city was bombarded with criticism for not hiring a minority-owned firm to help alleviate racial tension.
And then the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership offered Ferguson the services of the Devin James Group.
Another executive of a minority-owned St. Louis PR firm said he reached out to Ferguson in the days after the shooting to discuss the city’s communication strategy and inquire about a contract to handle the publicity enveloping the community.
“No one got back to me,” the owner said. “The next thing you know Common Ground was there and then James.”
Knowles said from the beginning it was clear that James knew what he was doing from a public relations standpoint and that he had made significant inroads to the community.
He said that African-American residents often complain that people with convictions don’t get a second chance.
“In Ferguson, we have done that,” by contracting with James, Knowles said. He could not be reached about whether the city would pick up James’ contract.
At times, James’ has appeared overwhelmed with requests. The city’s media line often goes unanswered and the voice mail is full.
His firm’s website claims 37 employees scattered in offices around the company, but it’s unclear how many people he actually employs.
James said the number was around 37.
Samuel McQueen, listed on site as “Agency Producer/Director and Screen Writer,” said he hadn’t worked for James in two years and didn’t know he was still on the site.
“We are making a lot of updates,” to the site, James said.
In September, James’ Twitter account, which he uses to communicate with residents and sometimes critique reporters’ work, suddenly gained more than 25,000 followers in a single day.
According to one website that audits Twitter accounts, 73 percent of James’ followers are fake. A sampling showed that many followers were in foreign countries. James denied purchasing followers to enhance his standing on social media.
“I don’t track that,” he said. “We are not in the Twitter business.”
Before he had any involvement in the city, James tweeted out his initial reaction to Brown’s shooting the day the teen was killed, “(expletive) crazy.. Unarmed teenage boy #killed by #Ferguson #police Y’all better wake up and stop killing…”
He said the tweet was just his initial reaction, and that even today, though his perceptions have changed, he doesn’t regret it.
“I’m human,” he said. “I’m a black man.”
Christine Byers of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.