Back in the fall of 2014, Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson was unstoppable. He’d pushed through a $300 million city subsidy for a new downtown arena for the Sacramento Kings. He’d helped elbow out racist Los Angeles Clippers team owner Donald Sterling, and grabbed a little of the spotlight for himself in the process. He’d been named president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
He and his wife, Michelle Rhee—once the brightest star in the corporate-backed “education reform” movement—showed up at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. An adviser told Johnson’s hometown newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, that the couple was a “modern-day version of Bill and Hillary Clinton.” There was talk about a run for California governor or U.S. Senate.
At his peak, KJ was a figure to behold, an urban policy entrepreneur and brander-in-chief selling #Sacramento 3.0, a “world-class” city where kids would take Uber vehicles instead of buses to their charter schools, “never check out a library book,” and have “more smart devices than toothbrushes.”
In July 2014, Johnson rented the Sacramento Convention Center and threw himself a big party—a twenty-fifth-anniversary fundraising gala for St. Hope Academy. He raised $1.2 million at the event, largely from real estate developers and others with business before City Hall.
St. Hope is Mayor KJ’s charter school and development company. More than that, it’s his brand—the foundation of his own career in educational reform and politics. The keynote speaker at St. Hope’s silver jubilee was the NBA’s biggest-ever star, Michael Jordan, whom Johnson interviewed on stage, fittingly enough, about “developing your brand.”
The dinner was also a chance for Johnson to recognize the little people who helped him along the way: people like Dr. Jim Sweeney, former superintendent of the Sacramento city schools, who, along with several former members of the Sacramento City Unified school board, were recognized for their 2003 decision to close the venerable Sacramento High School and reopen it as the flagship academy in Johnson’s growing charter school empire.
Ex-superintendent Sweeney’s remarks were brief. “Fifteen years ago, a guy walked into my office and said, ‘Doc!’” Sweeney recalled. “Those of you who know Kevin Johnson know that when he goes ‘Doc!’ you’re about to give away something.” The audience laughed; it’s funny because it’s true.
By the fall of 2015, Johnson’s political career was effectively over. He was under scrutiny, again, for allegedly molesting a sixteen-year-old girl two decades before. And he was facing a new allegation of sexual misconduct; a city employee had filed a sexual harassment complaint. The City of Sacramento’s legal advisers warned Johnson not to hug or touch anyone at city events. So Johnson, deciding two terms in office were enough, announced that he will not seek reelection this November. His exit will coincide with the opening of the new arena, easily his most significant mayoral achievement.
Meanwhile, debt service on the bond-financed arena will reach about $18 million a year, draining money from the city treasury. Sacramento’s city finance department is warning that the city’s spending is already “unsustainable” and budget deficits are imminent. For now, however, Johnson is being credited with a dramatic makeover of the new arena district—where a decaying shopping mall had been before.
Aside from the arena, Johnson’s other legacy is something I call KJ Inc. It’s a particular way of doing public business, and it’s also a political machine: a blended network of nonprofit auxiliary organizations, political cronies, and paid city staff, powered by unlimited donations from downtown developers and corporate benefactors.
Last year, Johnson sued me for filing public records requests for city emails, part of an ongoing project to better understand KJ’s mingling of public resources with his private nonprofits. The suit appears intended to economically damage the small alternative weekly I write for—the only media outlet in town to write critically about Johnson’s arena deal, or his educational reform campaign, or his use of city resources for his private agenda. We’re still in court.
The lawsuit, the arena, KJ’s talent for diverting public resources for private gain, even the sex-creep stuff: to me, these facts seem to hang together under a common theme. The guy has boundary issues.
To NBA fans, Johnson’s basic bio is well known. All-star point guard for the Phoenix Suns. He dunked on Hakeem Olajuwon that one time.
He grew up in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, an old inner suburb damaged by decades of disinvestment, white flight, and sprawl. Like a lot of other athletes, Johnson decided to create his own charity—St. Hope (“Helping Others Pursue Excellence”).
For his community work, Johnson was named one of George H. W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” in 1991. The Sacramento Bee described Johnson’s charity as “almost saintly.”
Looked at more closely, it’s clear that the public benefits promised by Johnson’s various “public–private partnerships” often fail to materialize. Or they come at a very high price. A few examples:
• St. Hope’s development arm built Oak Park’s signature “40 Acres” building, including a beautifully restored Guild Theater, bookstore, and Oak Park’s first Starbucks. It also took nearly $3 million in city loans and grants. But for years, Oak Park residents complained that St. Hope’s properties were overgrown with weeds and illegal dumping. Johnson’s properties gathered dozens of code violations—racking up tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Today, the St. Hope website still promises that some of those properties “will be renovated over the next five years” or that they are “scheduled for 2007.” But as that last vow makes painfully clear, the website hasn’t been updated in years; meanwhile, the properties sit empty, unbuilt, or unrefurbished.
• St. Hope also promised to save Johnson’s alma mater, Sacramento High School. Lagging test scores in the early 2000s put Sac High on the state’s list of “failing schools.” Established in 1856, Sac High billed itself as the “second-oldest high school west of the Mississippi,” though the current building dates only from the 1970s. In 2003 the school board gave Sac High to Johnson’s St. Hope to run as a charter school.
The closure of Sac High was bitterly contested. Groups of parents and activists tried for years to kick St. Hope out and revive it as a neighborhood school. The takeover created an undying enmity between Johnson and the Sacramento teachers’ union. Sacramento Charter High School is a success if you go by test scores and graduation rates. But no real empirical comparison can be fairly made between the teeming comprehensive high school of two thousand students and the small charter school of nine hundred that is there today. The latter has an application process, and the local teachers’ union has accused the school of “counseling out” students who don’t perform. In other words, Johnson didn’t turn around Sac High—he gutted it and established a much smaller, more selective school in its place.
• St. Hope’s “Hood Corps” program was funded with AmeriCorps grants to get young volunteers involved in tutoring at-risk youth and other kinds of community service. In 2008 federal officials found that St. Hope had misused the AmeriCorps money for Johnson’s “personal needs and purposes and/or to provide added free or subsidized staff for one or more of the entities controlled by Mr. Johnson.” In other words, the AmeriCorps money helped pay salaries of St. Hope employees. Hood Corps students were also used to run errands for Johnson, to wash his car, and to recruit students for Johnson’s charter schools. Some were even assigned to work on political campaigns for incumbent school board members who, according to federal investigators, “would be more likely to vote in favor of renewing Sac High’s charter.” St. Hope eventually had to give back more than $400,000 to AmeriCorps, and for a time Johnson was barred from receiving public funds from the federal government.
Some of Johnson’s behavior, and some of the dubious practices at St. Hope, started to come to light in late 2007 and early 2008, when Johnson announced his bid to be mayor of Sacramento.
His opponent was Heather Fargo, an environmental planner and former neighborhood activist who’d been mayor for two terms. Under Fargo, the city’s urban core had seen a bit of a renaissance; there were even plans for a few new skyscrapers and residential towers downtown. Near the end of her second term, however, the recession hit and Sacramento’s real estate market flatlined.
Some of Fargo’s detractors also complained of her failure to build a new arena for the Sacramento Kings. Like every Sacramento mayor for thirty years, Fargo wrestled with the problem of public assistance for the city’s only major-league sports franchise.
Fargo’s predecessor, the late mayor Joe Serna, shepherded through a $70 million loan package to keep the team from leaving town. Before him, mayor Anne Rudin oversaw the opening of vast tracts of flood-prone farmland to suburban sprawl, in exchange for real estate developers teaming up with the owners of the Kings to build the current arena in 1988.
By 2000, that arena was deemed obsolete. Plans for a replacement home came and went for years. Mayor Fargo herself always insisted that no public money would be committed without a public vote. In 2006 she backed a quarter-cent sales tax measure to build a new “sports and entertainment center.” Voters rejected it 80 percent to 20 percent.
For Fargo, the lesson was that there had to a better way. She’d later advocate for the NBA to come up with some sort of fund to help cover arena costs for small-market teams like the Kings. Kevin Johnson and his backers learned a different lesson: don’t let voters have a say in arena subsidies.
During the 2008 campaign, the wonky Fargo was ultimately no match for Johnson’s energy and celebrity—or his record-breaking campaign war chest. If anything, Johnson’s strongest opponent was his own baggage. One piece of his past was particularly troublesome: in 1996 a sixteen-year old named Mandi Koba told Phoenix police that her then twenty-nine-year-old mentor, Johnson, had molested her at his home, after the two had met while filming a public service announcement.
Phoenix police investigated, and even recorded a “confrontation call” between Johnson and his young accuser. The transcript of that call is somewhere between wince inducing and damning.
“Can I say something off the record?” says Johnson early in their chat. “I miss you bad.”
Koba tries to draw him out. “Well, I was naked and you were naked, and it wasn’t a hug,” she says later in the conversation.
“Well, I said the hug was more intimate than it should have been,” Johnson replies. “But I don’t believe I touched your private parts in those areas.”
Still, police decided there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue the matter. Koba would later confirm to Gawker Media site Deadspin that Johnson paid her $230,000 to drop her complaint.
There have been many other accusations. In 2007 a former Sacramento Charter High teacher named Erik Jones talked to a student and Hood Corps volunteer who complained that Johnson had hugged and kissed her and touched her breasts. Jones approached St. Hope attorney Kevin Hiestand about the girl’s story and suggested filing a report with Child Protective Services.
At his peak, Kevin Johnson was a figure to behold, an urban policy entrepreneur and brander-in-chief selling #Sacramento 3.0, a “world-class” city.
Hiestand was Johnson’s high school friend and also Johnson’s agent while he was in the NBA. He and two other St. Hope employees met with the girl and her mother, and later reported to Jones that the girl had recanted her story.
Jones resigned in protest in 2007. Sacramento police interviewed the girl and decided to go no further. Federal investigators also looked into a claim by another Hood Corps volunteer that Johnson had tried to climb into bed with her. But police didn’t pursue that allegation because the student was not a minor at the time.
Most Sacramento voters either didn’t believe the allegations—dismissing them as a fabricated scandal ginned up by KJ’s political opponents—or else didn’t care. Johnson was elected mayor in 2008.
But KJ was surprised and frustrated to learn that the mayor of Sacramento wasn’t all that powerful compared with big-city mayors like Michael Bloomberg in New York or Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, another ed reformer who tried to take the reins of that city’s schools.
He envied their staffs and their power to shape their cities’ agendas. But California cities had largely jettisoned the East Coast boss-mayor system during the Progressive Era, a century before KJ came on the scene. More galling, mayors in East Coast cities got to control city schools. In California, as Villaraigosa learned the hard way, the state constitution mostly prohibits mayors from meddling in the affairs of local school boards.
From day one, Johnson was preoccupied with enlarging the footprint of the mayor’s office—in both a political and physical sense. He moved his offices away from those of his fellow council members on City Hall’s fifth floor and took over the underused third floor. Soon KJ’s bullpen was teeming with interns and political consultants, “professional volunteers,” and friends, many of whom followed him over from St. Hope. Johnson was sworn in on December 2, 2008. A few days later he launched a ballot measure—the first of several—to institute a “strong mayor” system of government that would dramatically expand his power and budget.
It was rough going. The courts found one strong-mayor ballot measure unconstitutional, and the city council blocked two others. Subsequent elections resulted in a much more pro-KJ council. But when Johnson finally got his strong-mayor plan on the ballot in 2014, voters emphatically said no.
Now Johnson has the next best thing, a sort of shadow government embedded in the mayor’s office, made up of nonprofit auxiliary organizations and “volunteers,” many of whom are paid with money from big donors who have business at City Hall. This network of 501(c)(3) corporations is ostensibly set up to tackle specific policy areas—such as the environment, the arts, homelessness, education, and economic development. They are funded by private donors, at the behest of the mayor.
These sorts of “behested payments” to charities are nothing new. Council members have used them for years, to fund Little League, concerts in the park, or help keep city swimming pools open. But Johnson’s “charities” are different: he controls them, and they exist largely to promote him.
Behests have always had the potential to cause heartburn for good-government types. California governor Jerry Brown has directed millions in behests to an Oakland charter school he supports. There’s no question that some of those donors are trying to curry favor. The same goes for LA’s current mayor, Eric Garcetti, who directs behests to his Mayor’s Fund. Donations to Garcetti’s fund are tied to specific programs. Johnson’s nonprofits are more ambiguous about their spending.
There’s another striking difference between KJ’s charitable network and the nonprofit funds that other mayors control. Whereas the LA mayor’s fund is run by a board of prominent citizens, many with backgrounds in philanthropy, Johnson’s nonprofits are run entirely by his friends and political consultants.
The flagship nonprofit of KJ Inc. is, of course, St. Hope. As mayor, Johnson has been able to leverage, from real estate and other local interests, about $3 million in donations to support the family business. The biggest donors include Sacramento’s biggest sprawl developer, Angelo Tsakopoulos; arena developer Mark Friedman and his family; and Kevin Nagle, part owner of the Sacramento Kings and majority owner of the Sacramento Republic soccer team. Nagle is also on the St. Hope board of directors. All these men have been big donors to Johnson’s election campaigns and to his strong-mayor ballot measure. But while they are limited by strict political campaign contribution limits, they can give unlimited amounts to Johnson’s nonprofits.
They, along with other business interests, also give heavily to Johnson’s Sacramento Public Policy Foundation (SPPF), which is more closely associated with Johnson’s job as mayor. SPPF collects donations from interested parties who want to curry favor with the mayor, and then distributes the cash to various policy initiatives under Johnson’s direction. For a time, these initiatives included an environmental brand called Greenwise Sacramento and an arts program called For Arts’ Sake. Neither of these groups ever did much, and both are now dead links on Johnson’s website.
The real project of SPPF is Johnson’s “Think Big” initiative, which the mayor advertises as a way to “promote transformative projects that catalyze job creation and economic development.” But Think Big would be more accurately described as a public relations shop for stadium subsidies, coordinated out of City Hall, with the labor of city employees.
Johnson’s arena success can be attributed to a few key maneuvers—all actively enabled by the Think Big PR team. He got the city council to ignore the old Fargo-era policy that the council had adopted, requiring a public vote on plans for a major sports facility. He got the city clerk, and then the courts, to throw out tens of thousands of citizen signatures to put the arena subsidy on the ballot. Here, he was helped enormously by the citizen group’s disorganization, and the fact that the petitions were filled with errors. And he successfully floated to local media the notion that the deal “protects the general fund,” when in fact it diverted millions in revenue from city parking meters and garages.
Through SPPF and Think Big, Johnson took money from the Sacramento Kings, from arena developer Friedman, and other backers, and commissioned glowing—though quite misleading—economic reports to justify big new infusions of public money for the new arena. These were then marshaled, uncritically, through arena-backing outlets in the local press. Think Big also funded and organized a pseudo-grassroots campaign, headed up by a local sports talk personality, to cheerlead for the arena and pack city council meetings with purple-shirted arena supporters.
This was thinking big, indeed. The really innovative part of the KJ Inc. model of governance is the way in which it has studiously blurred the lines between the public and private sector. The players are hard to keep straight without a scorecard. Johnson hired former redevelopment manager Cassandra Jennings to be a liaison between his nonprofits and the mayor’s office. Jennings is on the city payroll, and also on the SPPF board of directors. In 2014 her husband, Rick Jennings—who was on the same school board that gave Sac High to St. Hope—also got himself elected to the city council. Not surprisingly, Jennings has been a reliable vote for his wife’s boss.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s chief of staff, Kunal Merchant, and his special assistant, R. E. Graswich, were both moved off the city payroll and onto Think Big’s payroll in 2012. But for a long time they continued to work out of City Hall.
Another Think Big team member was development attorney Jeffrey Dorso, whom Johnson relied on heavily in the city’s negotiations with the Kings and the NBA. But between the tentative agreement for an arena deal in 2013 and the final vote in 2014, Dorso took all the knowledge he had gathered working in City Hall, and went to work for the Kings. Merchant went on the Kings payroll immediately after the tentative arena deal was struck in 2013.
Too Big to Fail
Now that it’s been effectively road tested with the Kings arena, the SPPF model has been adapted to other cronyist sports projects. Think Big is now churning out rosy economic studies and good PR for KJ benefactor Nagle’s minor league soccer team, the Sacramento Republic. Nagle wants Major League Soccer to bestow major league status on his team. The league wants a guarantee that the team will make money, and that means, of course, that the Republic needs a new stadium.
To that end, the city recently announced it would provide parking facilities and $46 million worth of infrastructure for the new stadium in Sacramento’s downtown rail yards redevelopment area.
Think Big has recently hired Benjamin Aziz to work on the “public–private partnership” between the city and the team. Aziz also works as vice president of strategic initiatives for Sacramento Republic. And on his Twitter account, Aziz says he’s an aide to mayor Kevin Johnson.
This promiscuous mingling of public and private interests is now business as usual in Sacramento. Only rarely does it get Johnson in any trouble. In 2012 the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission fined Johnson $37,500 after learning that $3.5 million in behests to Johnson’s nonprofits from the Sacramento Kings and other donors had not been properly reported. Johnson called the nondisclosure a clerical error.
More typically, the operations of KJ Inc. go on with no public scrutiny at all. That’s especially true of Johnson’s use of City Hall to advance his brand of education reform, which seeks to roll back teacher protections and turn many more public schools into charters.
Johnson served on the board of the California Charter Schools Association. As president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Johnson pushed through pro-charter resolutions to speed the school privatization agenda on a national scale.
As it happens, the charter hustle is a Johnson family business. His (then future) wife and former St. Hope board member, Michelle Rhee, was hired by D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty as the first Chancellor of D.C. public schools in 2007. That year, the city passed reforms that took power away from D.C.’s elected school board and put control of the schools in the mayor’s office. This “mayoralization” of schools is a favorite KJ policy reform.
Fenty would lose reelection in 2010, in part because of Rhee’s confrontational tactics—like her ill-timed announcement that she was firing 241 underperforming D.C. public school teachers (and putting 737 more D.C. public school employees “on notice”) weeks ahead of the mayoral ballot. Once Rhee was sent packing along with Fenty, she was well positioned to clean up on the well-heeled foundation and government-affairs circuits, beginning with the anti-teachers’-union lobbying shop Students First, headquartered just two blocks north of California’s State Capitol and two blocks south of Sacramento City Hall.
That also happened to be the address of Johnson’s own education-related nonprofit, called Stand Up for Sacramento Schools. On its tax forms, Stand Up’s stated mission is “to ensure that every child in Sacramento has the opportunity to attend an excellent public school.”
In fact, Stand Up does next to nothing for Sacramento’s public schools. It is mostly a political organization, leveraging the mayor’s office to promote Johnson’s ideological brand of educational reform, and to promote Johnson himself.
This prime directive is spelled out in a 2011 email from Johnson to a potential Stand Up recruit—cc’d to Johnson’s executive assistant, a city employee. KJ says a large part of Stand Up’s function is to support his efforts to “advocate for much-needed legislation around policies such as Race to the Top, ESEA [No Child Left Behind], and LIFO (‘last in, first out’).” LIFO is the practice of laying off teachers with less seniority, a policy much in vogue among educational reformers. Johnson also mentions Stand Up’s support for “parent trigger” laws in California, which enable parents to vote to turn neighborhood schools into charters.
For more then a decade now, all these policies have been flash points in the ed reform wars. And most of Stand Up’s money comes from outside Sacramento, from the big underwriters of the school reform movement, like the Walmart-owning Walton family and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. In fact, Stand Up has taken in more money in mayoral behests than any of Johnson’s other nonprofits, more than $4 million since he took office.
Early on, Stand Up hosted education town halls and viewing parties for the pro-charter film Waiting for “Superman.” Stand Up promoted Teach for America and City Year in Sacramento schools, over the objections of local teachers’ unions. It supported Johnson’s frequent advocacy junkets to other frontline venues in the school wars, such as his trip to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to stump for a ballot initiative to take power away from the local school board and put it in the hands of the mayor. (Fortunately for the citizens of Bridgeport, the measure failed.)
About the only not-overtly-political thing Stand Up has touched is a reading tutoring program it helped to coordinate in 2011. The actual tutoring work was contracted to another group, which soon took over the project entirely. True to form, Johnson’s “Sacramento Reads” program is now just another dead link on KJ’s website.
Stand Up’s website contains video highlights of a handful of “education policy summits” in other cities, such as Nashville and Atlanta. These clips show Johnson, Rhee, and other Students First employees giving the ed reform pitch. But those events were nearly a year ago. Stand Up’s Facebook and Twitter feeds haven’t been updated in a year. When I called Stand Up’s directors of operations, and longtime KJ associate from back in the Phoenix days, Tracy Stigler, for an update, he hung up on me.
Despite the apparent lack of any activity in Sacramento schools, or anywhere else, Stand Up is still taking big donations—including $400,000 from the Walton Family Foundation last summer.
Where are the resources going? Like other Johnson-led nonprofits, Stand Up mainly seems to be in the business of shoring up his political ambitions and promoting his brand.
Back in Black
In 2013 Stand Up employees teamed up with staff on the Sacramento city payroll to advance Johnson’s successful bid to take over the forty-year-old National Conference of Black Mayors.
The NCBM was in serious financial and leadership disarray, and Johnson once more positioned himself as an insurgent voice of reform. But during his short tenure at the head of the group, Johnson has ended up destroying it, as detailed at length by Dave McKenna at Deadspin.
In 2013 a PowerPoint presentation was distributed to the mayor’s City Hall staff, titled “National Conference of Black Mayors: Annual Meeting ‘Coup,’” laying out in bald terms the strategy behind the Johnson putsch. Participants included Aisha Lowe, who worked in City Hall as Johnson’s interim director of African American affairs—a position that doesn’t exist on the city payroll. Instead, she was earning a $100,000 annual salary as Stand Up’s executive director, while “volunteering” for the city.
Among the other plotters were Stephanie Mash Sykes, Johnson’s director of governmental affairs, and Mariah Sheriff, Johnson’s director of government affairs in education. Both positions are phony, but Sykes and Sheriff have presented themselves as employees of the Office of the Mayor. Sheriff even uses the City of Sacramento’s logo on her LinkedIn work history.
Johnson ultimately forced NCBM into bankruptcy, and that legal fight is still wending its way through the courts in Atlanta, where the group is headquartered. He immediately started a competing group, called the African American Mayors Association, and installed Sykes as executive director and himself as president. In short order, AAMA has established itself as yet another pay-to-play arm of the KJ Inc. machine. Perhaps the clearest example is Johnson’s mercenary relationship with Uber.
In June 2014, Uber gave a $50,000 check to the AAMA. In August, Mayor Johnson penned an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle praising Uber as an exciting part of “Cities 3.0” and arguing against new regulations for such ride-share companies. In September, at the USCM fall meeting in Sacramento, Johnson held an entire session on the “sharing economy,” featuring Uber CEO Travis Kalanick as a speaker. Days before, the Sacramento Kings had announced that Uber was the official ride-sharing service of the Sacramento Kings.
The Great Spinning Server
At the beginning of 2015, I started to look more closely at how Johnson uses private emails to do city business. Johnson’s parallel email scheme is designed to make an end run around California’s Public Records Act, and is far more devious than anything Hillary Clinton ever cooked up.
A big chunk of the work of the Office of the Mayor is done using a set of email@example.com accounts—OMKJ being the acronym for “Office of Mayor Kevin Johnson.” These accounts are issued to city employees as soon as they start working in the mayor’s office, as well as to workers at Johnson’s welter of double-dealing nonprofits.
Except for the fact that these aren’t official city email accounts, they are, in all other respects, “work emails.” R. E. Graswich, the mayor’s former aide, estimated that the mayor’s office transacted roughly 80 percent of its business on this Gmail network. He noted that the correspondence in these emails covered the full gamut of KJ Inc. pursuits—city business, nonprofit business, and political campaign business.
In March of 2015, I filed a California Public Records Act request for all emails sent to and from OMKJ email accounts. The vast majority of the emails were withheld. Sacramento’s city attorney says that Johnson is under no legal obligation to release the OMKJ emails to the public. That means a very large and important chunk of city business is being done using emails that the city has absolutely no control over.
But several thousand OMKJ emails did end up on city servers, in the course of daily business and interactions with other departments. I’ve gotten several batches of these, over time, even though they were often forwarded to me in a heavily redacted state. Nonetheless, these emails have been invaluable in illuminating the day-to-day operations of the official and extramural arms of KJ Inc. Most important, they drive home the nearly complete lack of separation between Johnson’s nonprofits, his educational reform political operation, and his public office.
Among the emails that wound up on city servers were around one hundred messages between various members of the mayor’s staff and his lawyers at the law firm Ballard Spahr, the firm representing Johnson in his legal fight with the NCBM while also handling the legal business of Johnson’s upstart African American Mayors Association. (The company also does a robust business helping charter schools to finance capital projects.)
After getting a timely warning from the Sacramento city attorney, Ballard Spahr’s attorney David Pittinsky contacted me and threatened to sue if I didn’t modify my public records request. Pittinsky wanted me to stipulate that my FOIA request shouldn’t encompass any correspondence potentially protected by attorney–client privilege.
Kevin Johnson didn’t turn around Sacramento High—he gutted it and established a much smaller, more selective school in its place.
This was wildly inappropriate. It’s the city attorney’s job—not a petitioning reporter’s—to determine what records, if any, are privileged. The kind of side-deal that Pittinsky was seeking to strike with me, under the threat of litigation, would likely result in hiding records that really should be disclosed.
I didn’t agree, so KJ’s lawyers sued my newspaper, and the city as well, in July of last year. I still don’t know what’s in those one hundred or so emails. I’m sure they are revealing. But I’m frankly more concerned about tens of thousands of other emails—kept off city servers thanks to KJ’s parallel Gmail system—that are being hidden from the public.
The Sacramento News and Review, the small weekly paper I have written for these last fifteen years, has fought the suit, though it would have been easy enough to back down to avoid the steep legal bills that come with any court confrontation. Gawker Media, Deadspin’s parent company, has also asked to join in the suit, because it shares an obvious interest in the mayor’s emails and the NCBM debacle. That would help ease SN&R’s financial burden, but the city attorney has fought to keep Deadspin out of the case. The city attorney refuses to explain why. The daily newspaper in town, the Sacramento Bee, has declined to get involved in the public records fight.
Meanwhile, readers generously donated $15,000 to SN&R’s legal defense fund. That’s not much by KJ standards, but huge for the paper. Then First Look Media kicked in another $15,000, saying, “Johnson has dramatically raised the costs for the paper to assert its rights.”
The suit also drew a lot of attention to Johnson’s secrecy and the way he uses city resources. After our first hearing, I stood outside the courtroom and watched local TV reporters begin to ask some pretty tough questions of the mayor’s spokesman Ben Sosenko, who lamely assured them that “the mayor is completely open and transparent.”
None of that stuff—KJ’s secrecy, his misuse of public resources, his bullying lawsuit against a small alt-weekly—was any threat to his political future. What did him in was the video of Mandi Koba’s police interview that Deadspin dug up and posted on YouTube—as part of its “Kevin Johnson is an asshole” campaign.
The liberal advocacy group Courage Campaign later released its own video, aimed at pressuring Johnson to resign, which blends the Koba’s police interview with audio of Johnson’s “I miss you bad” chat and, of course, that clip of KJ dunking on Olajuwon.
The Sacramento Bee editorial board, long an ally of KJ’s and a champion of his educational reform agenda, criticized the video, saying it was cooked up by the teachers’ unions and their allies. Johnson also told the New York Times that the Koba allegations were resurfacing only because of the grudge teachers still hold over the takeover of Sac High and the loss of union jobs in the deal. In any case, the Courage Campaign gave us a good glimpse of the kind of campaign ads waiting for KJ if he ever runs for office again.
After many years of banging pots and pans and trying to draw attention to the way Johnson does business, I found it weird to see Gawker Media lumber into town and put an end to Johnson’s political career. I had to laugh when a local TV station ran a story questioning Deadspin’s “motivation” for going after KJ.
At least the station played audio of Deadspin editor Tim Marchman’s response, with appropriate bleeping: “Our motivation to cover Kevin Johnson aggressively is the Sacramento press has done a fucking embarrassing job of it. This guy is corrupt.”
The favored candidate to succeed Johnson is Darrell Steinberg, former president pro tem of the California State Senate. As pro tem, Steinberg shepherded through legislation to fast track the new arena deal and allow construction to go forward during the inevitable lawsuits that followed. (All were eventually thrown out.)
Steinberg’s main competition is councilperson Angelique Ashby, a loyal member of Team KJ for the last five years. Shortly after announcing her candidacy, Ashby sent out a press release saying it was time to change the “culture of corruption” in City Hall. This is undeniably an issue on which she can boast first-hand expertise, having witnessed that culture take hold of the mayor’s office and its surrounding network of shadow nonprofits—and having kept quiet about its spread. In 2015 Ashby was assigned to head up the mayor’s ad hoc committee on ethics and transparency. (“Ad hoc” is exactly the right description of it.) She took the reins from the ethics committee’s previous chairman, Johnson’s council ally Allen Warren, another former pro athlete, who last year was accused of—what else?—sexual harassment.
The mayor’s ethics committee met behind closed doors for ten months, with no public input. At the end of this long series of discussions, Ashby negotiated privately with the local chapters of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, agreeing on the creation of an ethics commission staffed by retired judges and law professors, and a few weak additions to the city’s ethics code.
The proposed new ethics codes—due to come to the city council sometime after the new year—say nothing about behests, or about running nonprofits out of City Hall, or about using city emails to do city business. They do, however, require council members to take sexual harassment training.
In a sense, this is an entirely fitting gloss on the Johnson legacy. As he leaves Sacramento City Hall, his overhaul of Sacramento’s municipal scene—and most especially, his record of mixing official city business with nonprofit educational and foundation hustles—will likely live on.
Consider just one representative case in point: city councilperson Jay Schenirer. He’s a longtime Johnson ally and a former member of the school board majority who voted to give away Sac High. He now makes his living as an education consultant.
Following Johnson’s lead, Schenirer started his own nonprofit, headquartered for several years inside his City Hall office. WayUp Sacramento is funded with a mix of endowment money and corporate donations. Schenirer’s nonprofit took $50,000 from the Walmart Foundation while at the same time leading the successful effort to repeal the city’s “big box” ordinance, which required an economic impact study as a condition before any new big box retail franchise would be granted city permits. The “charitable” contribution was much larger than the maximum Walmart could have given to Schenirer’s reelection campaign.
When I asked Schenirer why WayUp was allowed to operate in City Hall, when other nonprofits were left without the luxury of tapping city resources, he took a page from his mentor, explaining that WayUp isn’t really a charity at all; it’s a “brand.”
This new kind of public-private logrolling will likely go on post-KJ, largely invisible to ordinary Sacramentans. Some version of it is probably happening in your city too, or will be soon enough. Just remember that when a policy entrepreneur like KJ comes calling, you’re about to give something away.