Leading science educator. Respected author. Celebrated podcaster.
But Bend’s Brian Dunning has another label, one he’s finally ready to open up about with his community: convicted felon.
“In every relationship I have in life, I have to decide, ‘OK, when do I bring this up?’ When do I tell someone probably the scariest thing you can hear about somebody?” he said.
Deschutes County Parole and Probation monitors more than 1,300 former inmates on some form of release from jail or prison. These people raise families and work in all manner of professions. The challenges they face are rarely discussed in the mainstream.
Next week, Dunning will join a City Club of Central Oregon panel to discuss reintegrating inmates into their communities. He’ll talk about the stigma that comes with a prison record and what he learned about how much inmates can offer when they’re released.
Dunning, 52, admits he’s lucky to have served his sentence at a federal minimum-security prison — which he likened to life in a college dorm — and that he had a solid support system when he got out. But he knows about the labels that follow prisoners when they step foot outside. “It’s the first thing anyone learns when they Google me,” he said.
It was a complex criminal case that began in 2006. Dunning, who lived in California at the time, ran one of the world’s largest eBay affiliates, Kessler’s Flying Circus, and his victim was eBay. In an explanation on his website, Dunning faults the web auction giant for how it operated and himself for ignoring red flags.
For four years, the matter was a contract dispute working through civil court, but after pressure from eBay, federal prosecutors brought charges of wire fraud in 2010.
In his guilty plea, Dunning acknowledged his company received payments it wasn’t entitled to in its original contract. He served nine months in a federal prison camp and repaid the money he owed eBay. But his reputation took a permanent hit, he said.
“I learned you can’t necessarily get back to your old life,” he said. “It colors everything you try to do in the future. That’s why I call it the internet tattoo.”
Dunning recommends “getting in front” of the story and being completely open about one’s criminal record. But that can be tough when working with large donors, as Dunning does with his educational nonprofit, Skeptoid Media.
“It’s awkward,” he said. “Half the donors we talk to cut it off as soon as they find out. We never hear from them again.”
Dunning was trained as a computer scientist in 1996 and founded the service provider Buylink Corp., which he ran until 2002.
Since 2006, he’s battled quackery and pseudoscience with his Skeptoid podcast, in which he applies a critical lens to a new topic each week, from ancient aliens to Zuma, a spacecraft launched this year by SpaceX. The show now averages 116,000 weekly listeners and is one of the highest-rated science podcasts on iTunes.
Dunning and his wife waited until their kids had flown the nest, about a year ago, to move from Southern California to Bend to be closer to family and the area’s famous outdoor amenities. “As soon as they graduated high school, poof, we were gone,” he said.
The City Club forum will be held at 11:15 a.m. Dec. 20 at the Riverhouse on the Deschutes Convention Center. Also speaking will be Crystal Mourlas-Jaun, a former inmate and current outreach coordinator for Dave’s Killer Bread in Portland, and Jeff Pickens, supervisor of Deschutes County Parole and Probation.
“One thing I’ve learned is, whether or not someone has a record is one of the least important things about them,” Dunning said. “You’ve got good people and bad people on the inside. You’ve got good people and bad people on the outside. It’s a very unimportant metric.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org