Kevin Johnson has ambitions of becoming something much more than just mayor of his hometown of Sacramento, Calif. So far, the former NBA star hasn’t found a way to realize them—but his desire to expand and promote his brand has meant that Sacramento city staffers have had lots of extra work to do that hasn’t had anything much to do with running the city.
Thus was Johnson’s taxpayer-subsidized mayoral team put to work on his behalf last year as he tried to play kingmaker when the National Basketball Players Association was searching for a new executive director.
In 2014, NBPA brass invited Johnson—at the time riding high on publicity from the assistance and counsel he offered NBA commissioner Adam Silver as he dealt with Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racism scandal—to consult on its effort to replace deposed boss Billy Hunter.
Johnson, though, set up his own “advisory search committee” and personally approached candidates. The labor for this project came right off the Sacramento municipal payroll, with city workers using private email accounts, presumably to keep the operation off the books.
“All the emails included members of his [mayoral] staff,” says a source who witnessed Johnson’s approaches and requested anonymity, “and were him telling his staff to do this and him telling people they should get in touch with this staff person to get this done.
“It was always his staff.”
Public employees, public money, private work
Among the mayoral staffers Johnson used during his NBPA excursion, according to a source, were Ben Sosenko, the press secretary; Daniel Conway, the chief of staff; Stephanie Mash, director of government affairs, African-Americans; Astrid Mirazo, administrative coordinator for the mayor’s office; and Aaron Anderson, whose online résumé says he’s in charge of “public-private partnerships” for the mayor’s office. This source says Johnson also exploited the labor of Andre Breaux, who earned a fellowship in Johnson’s office through his work at the University of Arkansas’s Clinton School of Public Policy, then signed on to the staff. Johnson clearly taught the young fellow that there’s nothing wrong with using public labor for private deeds: Breaux’s own résumé boasts that he “[m]anaged project tasks for the Mayor’s role as Chairman of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) Executive Director Search Committee.”
An email typical of those sent around by and to Johnson’s publicly paid minions.
Alas, all the Sacramentans’ money and Johnson’s time and effort went for naught. The union’s executive committee grew tired of his cock-of-the-walk attitude, and when Johnson saw a lack of kowtowing on their part, he left the headhunting expedition in a huff while the search was still ongoing.
“He wanted to run the thing with an iron fist,” says one observer, “and when he saw he couldn’t get everything his way, he took his ball and went home.”
Of course, the people of Sacramento had paid for the ball Johnson was playing with. And it turns out that Johnson’s use of city employees for the NBPA campaign wasn’t a one-off for him.
Deadspin wrote last week about all the time, effort, and bullying Johnson put into taking over and then demolishing a black mayor’s group. Court records now show that folks on the Sacramento payroll also did Johnson’s private bidding during every phase of that bizarre, megalomaniacal campaign, which flopped as badly as his foray into NBPA politics.
The discovery phase of civil lawsuits inspired by what Johnson called a “coup” carried out against the National Conference of Black Mayors has produced lots of evidence showing that he had members of his mayoral staff carrying out his clandestine operations. Among the civil servants doing Johnson’s dirty work: Mash and Sosenko, veterans of the NBPA excursion; Mariah Sheriff, director of governmental affairs in education; Aisha Lowe, whose emails identify her as interim director of African-American affairs for the mayor’s office; and Shannon Hovis, coordinator of governmental affairs in education. Meera Krishnan, a senior fellow on the mayor’s staff on loan from Harvard, was also knee-deep in Johnson’s NCBM muck.
In both the NBA and NCBM projects, the mayor and his staff used private email accounts. The staff typically just appended “OMKJ@gmail.com” (for “Office of Mayor Kevin Johnson) to their first names—press secretary Ben Sosenko, for example, used email@example.com, when his normal work email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, while Johnson favored email@example.com.
There is little purpose in using private email accounts, as has been pointed out by Hillary Clinton’s detractors, other than to make tracing a public servant’s deeds more difficult.
A history of dubious acts
Johnson’s history of using public money for his own purposes well predates his mayoralty. He was banned from accepting federal grants for any of his foundations in 2008, after an investigation by Gerald Walpin, inspector general for the Corporation for National Community Service. Walpin focused mostly on misdeeds at St. HOPE Academy, which Johnson founded to run charter schools. Walpin referred Johnson to the U.S. Attorney for criminal prosecution after finding that he’d filed “false and fraudulent claims” totaling $845,018.75. Walpin alleged that Johnson was hiring people as “tutors” and paying them with federal funds given to St. HOPE, then using those employees to wash his car and do other personal errands for him.
“The settlement accepted by the Corporation leaves the unmistakable impression that relief from a suspension can be bought,” Walpin wrote. “In addition, media pressures and political considerations both appear to have impacted the Corporation’s decision here.”
The NBA and NCBM fiascos strongly imply that Johnson didn’t learn any lesson from the St. HOPE episode. And perhaps there was no reason for him to do so; folks in his hometown seem just fine with how he’s using their money. Just last week, Johnson got the City Council to approve his request to add five staffers to the mayor’s work force and increase the budget of the mayor’s office by a whopping 70 percent over last year, according to the Sacramento Bee ($).
Johnson avoided indictment amid a political brouhaha in D.C. between the Bush administration holdovers who’d launched the Johnson investigation and Justice Department officials installed by then-new President Barack Obama. Months after the ban was implemented, Johnson was elected as the first African-American mayor of Sacramento; at the time he was seen as a future star of the Democratic Party. He even dubbed himself “Baby Barack.” Johnson didn’t appeal the grant ban, but officials of the incoming presidential administration removed him from the no-grant list and declined to prosecute him after he repaid a portion of the misused federal money. That deal caused Walpin to complain to Congress that Johnson’s friends got him off easy.
“There’s a lot of good news in this budget,” Johnson said after local lawmakers gave him the public windfall.
Johnson spokesman Ben Sosenko did not respond to requests for comment for this article, sent by Deadspin both to his public and private email accounts.
Anything we should know? Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo via Getty.