AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. This summer we've run several stories about the American dream. Well, today the story of Vernon Jackson of Louisville, Kentucky. He's lived it twice. His story is about making it big, blowing it even bigger, and then coming back renewed.
VERNON JACKSON: Go from a master to a servant, believe me.
SIEGEL: You used to be a master?
JACKSON: Yes. I gave orders, and now I take orders.
SIEGEL: He means he takes orders from God. That whooshing sound is a fountain in the lobby of a suburban Holiday Inn. It's where Jackson spends Friday mornings with a Bible study group. They're all middle-aged black men. Some are pastors, some are professionals.
JACKSON: But those that do, that walk in his walk and talk in his talk, they're actually blessing him, because...
SIEGEL: At age 60, Vernon Jackson still looks like man who gives orders. He's an imposing 6-foot-4, almost 300 pounds, with a shaved head and goatee. He grew up in humble circumstances in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father mopped floors in public school weekdays and preached in an Apostolic church on Sundays. At 17, Jackson says he caught a break at 17 with an AT&T affirmative action program that trained in electronics and sent him to work in Louisville.
JACKSON: We had to do better than the majority because we were considered minority, expected to fail. So we didn't have the choice to fail. And so we insisted on whatever they threw to us, we would make it work.
SIEGEL: He did. He became a network supervisor. He was comfortable and secure.
JACKSON: I wasn't poor.
SIEGEL: You weren't poor. You were a solid middle class citizen.
JACKSON: Yes. Great middle class salary, yes.
SIEGEL: After 20 years at AT&T, he struck out on his own. He had an idea, an invention.
JACKSON: I saw the need, I saw an opportunity, and I was driven by the fact that I believed it was doable.
SIEGEL: Vernon Jackson's invention made copper wire - old fashioned telephone lines - broadband capable. This was the 1990s, the years of the telecom bubble. Jackson started a company which went public, got a patent and started making the device. And if it were sitting here in the room right now, what would it look like?
JACKSON: A pair of black boxes, one on each end of the wire.
SIEGEL: And with those boxes, you could in effect take old infrastructure, old copper wires and...
JACKSON: And make them act like fiber optics.
SIEGEL: Vernon Jackson figured black neighborhoods and African countries would be the last to be re-wired with modern fiber optics. They were on the wrong end of a technological divide, and his device could bridge it. The poor could get access to teleconferencing and email, and he could get rich.
JACKSON: We did an initial public offering in 1995, and the company was valued at more than a billion dollars when we took it public.
SIEGEL: And when you went public, your own personal wealth - I've heard one estimate that you were worth $26 million.
JACKSON: It was more like 30 something, but somewhere in that neighborhood, yeah.
SIEGEL: Worth $30 million.
SIEGEL: But between competition and problems with financing, his first company went broke. So he started a second company called iGate, and again, there were financing problems. Jackson recalls a conversation with a potential investor who was white.
JACKSON: He said, let me tell you something, because of the color of your skin, you will never get the money you need. You need me, or somebody with my complexion.
SIEGEL: Jackson says that made him angry and determined to succeed. But iGate still needed an angel, and Vernon Jackson found one. His benefactor didn't have money, but he did have power - Democratic Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana. Jefferson was a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
JACKSON: His relationship to me was to make sure that my products and services got installed in wherever places he had influence, okay. Jefferson was a very influential and powerful man.
SIEGEL: And a very corrupt one as well. In Louisiana politics, William Jefferson was known to his detractors as Dollar Bill. Jackson says he'd never heard that. He trusted him. Congressman Jefferson became iGate's advocate, drumming up business for the company in the U.S. and in Nigeria.
REPRESENTATIVE WILLIAM JEFFERSON: Hey, big man.
JACKSON: Hey, chief, how are you?
JEFFERSON: Oh, I'm hanging in there. Hey, don't say chief, man. I was talking to somebody today about making me a chief.
SIEGEL: That's the Congressman calling Vernon Jackson from Ghana in 2005. Neither man knew the call was being recorded. It comes from an FBI wiretap. They were running a sting operation against the congressman, and Vernon Jackson was caught up in it. Here was Jackson's problem. Back in 2001, after Congressman Jefferson had helped iGate win some business, the two men began a new relationship at the congressman's suggestion.
JACKSON: He says, I've really done all that I can do, but you need to be marketed at a high level. So, I can't do that per se, but there's a company owned by my wife and my daughters who do just that.
SIEGEL: Jackson started paying that company $7,500 a month, and transferring shares of stock as well.
JACKSON: I remember saying something - you sure this is okay, because I saw a little red flag. He says, of course. I wouldn't steer you wrong. This is my wife, my daughters.
SIEGEL: So every time - every month that iGate paid $7,500...
SIEGEL: ...or transferred stock to the company that was controlled by Mrs. Jefferson...
SIEGEL: ...the money was going to Congressman Jefferson?
SIEGEL: And in effect, you, through your company, were paying a U.S. Congressman...
SIEGEL: ...to do something. You were in effect bribing a public official?
JACKSON: Yes. Yes.
SIEGEL: But at the time, Jackson says, he didn't realize it. The arrangement went on for five years, then came the night of Saturday, May 20th, 2006.
(SOUNDBITES OF NEWS PROGRAM)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: FBI agents searched the office of Democratic Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana last night...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...who's been accused of taking bribes from a technology company and stuffing the cash in a freezer at his house.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: According to an FBI affidavit, an informant was wired as Jefferson demanded bribes in exchange for promoting a high-tech business in Nigeria.
SIEGEL: Jefferson was indicted, later tried and convicted. He is remembered as the congressman with $90,000 of cash in his freezer. Vernon Jackson pleaded guilty, testified against Jefferson, and went to prison for three years. Along the way he got religion, in dreams and visions, he says, and declared himself a pastor, ordained by God. When we talked about all this, I was curious. What makes an otherwise law-abiding businessman write his own ticket to federal prison?
Why did he say yes when Congressman Jefferson told him to sign that deal with his wife?
JACKSON: It's called the moment of truth and what's in one's heart determines what one does. And we'd had so much difficulty getting to this point, in terms of all the raising the money and so many hurdles we had overcome. And now we're here. We have people willing to pay for this stuff. We know it's worth billions, so the shareholders will do well. We're looking at our own glory, if you will.
JACKSON: We will do well.
JACKSON: And so you say, well, you know what? I'm gonna go down this road. Let's see where it takes us.
SIEGEL: And you deserved that success. You deserved that success.
JACKSON: Oh, absolutely.
SIEGEL: And you can do good with it.
JACKSON: Yeah. You've struggled and struggled and struggled, and now you're here, and you see all the good that you can do, the reason you've been fighting and struggling, the reason you wouldn't let it go is because you know you have something here that can really change people's lives.
SIEGEL: In the end, it was Vernon Jackson's life that changed. He's at home a lot these days. He takes care of his wife, whose back was broken in a car accident. He says he does some consulting, and his device to make broadband connections over copper wire is still being marketed by a firm in Houston. In his living room, even in the middle of summer, there's a white Christmas tree.
JACKSON: Ever since I walked back into this house, I've insisted that this tree is on each and every day.
SIEGEL: It stands for Christ, he says, and he says he has a problem celebrating him just once a year.
JACKSON: The scriptures even say, in my house there shall always be a light.
SIEGEL: For a man who once had a mansion in the works, who was worth millions and dreamt of billions, a player who used to hobnob with Nigerian high-rollers, Vernon Jackson's life these days is very modest, and it's a very American second act. The self-inflicted wounds of an outsized ambition bathed in faith. It's a different kind of American dream.