Utah attorney general suspends state contract with Banjo in light of founder’s KKK past

(screengrab from Banjo company website) Damien Patton's company, Banjo, has a contract with the state of Utah to create a live-time surveillance system to help law enforcement and other entities respond to situations faster. Some experts worry about privacy implications.

The Utah attorney general’s office will suspend use of a massive surveillance system after a news report showed that the founder of the company behind the effort was once an active participant in a white supremacist group and was involved in the shooting of a synagogue.

The University of Utah also said Tuesday it would suspend its contract with Banjo, which has business deals with several cities and police departments across the state.

An official with Utah Department of Public Safety said that agency had launched a review of its relationship with the Park City-based firm in light of the reports.

Damien Patton, who helped launch and now leads the secretive startup Banjo, was part of the Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan as a 17-year-old and joined a leader of the group in a drive-by shooting of a synagogue in a Nashville suburb, according to a report by the online outlet OneZero, citing transcripts of courtroom testimony, sworn statements and more than 1,000 pages of records produced from a federal hate crime prosecution.

Utah officials in 2018 had awarded Patton’s company a sole-source, $750,000 contract to provide massive real-time surveillance of 911 calls, social media and traffic cameras. The company has also signed a $20.7 million contract with the state.

Patton, according to OneZero, had “admitted to participating in white supremacist talks and meetings, where, according to his own testimony, speakers advocated for the elimination of Blacks and Jews, among other beliefs built around racism and religious discrimination.”

Attorney General Sean Reyes’ office “is shocked and dismayed at reports that Banjo’s founder had any affiliation with any hate group or groups in his youth,” said Reyes’ spokesman, Richard Piatt. “Neither the attorney general nor anyone in the attorney general’s office were aware of these affiliations or actions. They are indefensible. He has said so himself.”

Piatt said that Reyes and his office “absolutely condemn the hate and violence promoted by supremacist groups and will continue to aggressively fight crimes and decry domestic terror perpetrated by them.”

In light of the news report, the attorney general has demanded immediate action.

“While we believe Mr. Patton’s remorse is sincere and believe people can change, we feel it’s best to suspend use of Banjo technology by the Utah attorney general’s office while we implement a third-party audit and advisory committee to address issues like data privacy and possible bias,” Piatt said. “We recommend other state agencies do the same.”

The University of Utah announced Tuesday it “has suspended any activities with Banjo in line with the state’s action” and supports the attorney general’s plan to audit the company, U. spokesman Chris Nelson said in a statement.

"The university condemns racism in any form, including the actions and rhetoric of white supremacy groups, and is committed to creating an inclusive environment where there is no tolerance for racism or bias,” Nelson said in the statement. “The university expects this of itself and its business partners.”

A state Department of Public Safety spokesperson said in a statement issued late Tuesday that the agency “was not aware of the affiliations or previous criminal conduct by Mr. Patton” and was “reviewing its current relationship and agreements with Banjo.”

"Such actions are contrary to the values that DPS respects and its mission to protect the freedoms and constitutional rights of all people,” DPS said.

But the agency added that it had not moved to cancel a contract with Banjo because that had been signed by the state Department of Administrative Services’ purchasing division.

“We are discussing and reviewing the matter with them,” DPS said, declining further comment until those talks had taken place.

Banjo also has numerous contracts with cities and police departments in Utah, including Park City and Ogden, although a complete list of the company’s local government customers has not been made public. Ogden and Park City officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Park City has free access to Banjo’s system because it was part of a pilot program. The city’s police chief has said that about half the city’s businesses allow Banjo to access their surveillance cameras. Ogden’s contract includes coverage for 17 months at a cost of $136,114, according to invoices.

The OneZero report noted Patton has disavowed his former beliefs, which included testifying at trial that, “We believe that the Blacks and the Jews are taking over America, and it’s our job to take America back for the White race.”

In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday, Patton said: “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.”

Patton said in a statement that as a homeless teen he 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.”

Patton, who later served in the Navy, said that he worked with law enforcement agencies to help with “hate group prosecutions.”

“For all of those I have hurt, and that this revelation will hurt, I’m sorry,” he added. “No apology will undo what I have done.”

Tribune reporter Leia Larsen contributed to this story.