This past Saturday, disgraced school-privatization activist Michelle Rhee brought her husband, disgraced outgoing Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, to a meeting with Donald Trump at the president-elect’s golf club, where they discussed her possible nomination as secretary of education. Trump met that same day with other potential cabinet nominees—Mitt Romney, a former Trump basher now allegedly being considered for Secretary of State; Betsy Devos, a huge GOP donor also up for the education post; and James Mattis, a rumored secretary of defense pick—but Rhee was the only prospect to show up with a spouse. She was thus responsible for the president-elect, an accused serial sexual abuser, meeting another accused serial sexual abuser—one who allegedly paid one teen girl $230,600 to never speak of him to anyone other than “a priest, a therapist, or a lawyer.”
Why the president-elect’s advisers would allow him to be so much as seen with Johnson is unknown and perhaps unknowable. Another mystery is why Johnson, a very public Hillary Clinton supporter, was even there. Maybe he was crossing the aisle to lobby for his wife as a way of returning a favor. The woman who would be the secretary of education has, after all, spoken up on behalf of her husband to GOP folks before, despite his history of being accused of groping and abusing young girls. Several years ago, for example, she met with Gerald Walpin, a George W. Bush appointee who, from 2007 to 2009, served as inspector general for the Corporation for National Community Service. Rhee, early into her run as the most-celebrated charlatan the public education realm had ever encountered, called for the meeting as her then-future husband was in quite a legal pickle.
At the time, Walpin was investigating St. HOPE Academy, the charter-school organization Johnson founded in his hometown of Sacramento, which received a ton of federal grants. According to a 2009 report released jointly by the Senate Finance Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Walpin’s investigators found that between 2004 and 2007, Johnson had misspent hundreds of thousands of federal dollars. Among the myriad allegations of malfeasance: Money given to St. HOPE to hire tutors was instead used to pay people who would “wash his car [and] run personal errands” for Johnson.
Rhee showed up in the most sinister portions of the joint reports about Walpin’s investigation. They assert that Rhee, who was a board member of St. HOPE, was used as a “fixer” to clean up whatever mess was made by Johnson, who was principal of St. HOPE schools before becoming mayor of Sacramento.
One sordid example of Rhee-as-fixer contained in the Congressional reports alleged that in 2007 she swooped in to St. HOPE after a St. HOPE staffer, Jacqueline Wong-Hernandez, told Walpin’s team that a teenager came to her alleging that Johnson had “inappropriately touched” her. (Johnson has faced such allegations several times through the years.)
After Wong-Hernandez reported the sexual-abuse allegations to St. HOPE’s human resources department, she said, she got a visit not from local legal authorities, but from Rhee. Wong-Hernandez said that she told Rhee what the teenager was alleging, and that Rhee told her that taking care of the sexual-abuse situation was her “number one priority.”
Wong-Hernandez said that she then learned that shortly after her talk with Rhee, the accuser had been approached by Kevin Hiestand, Johnson’s personal lawyer and St. HOPE’s counsel. According to the Walpin report, Johnson then called for a meeting with Wong-Hernandez at which he told her that he had spoken with the accuser and that “everything was OK between” Johnson and the alleged victim. Wong-Hernandez told Walpin’s investigators that she was in “disbelief” after her meeting with Johnson. She resigned from St. HOPE shortly after the incident.
“Ms. Wong-Hernandez informed Ms. Rhee that she didn’t trust the leadership at St. HOPE,” said the report.
In 2014, Wong-Hernandez told me that she had indeed quit working for Johnson to protest the handling of the sexual-abuse charges she’d reported to administrators.
Walpin isn’t around to voice any thoughts about Rhee and Johnson tag-teaming Trump in hopes of getting the highest education job in the land: He was run over by a car and killed on the streets of Manhattan in June of this year. But in 2014, I asked him about his meeting with Rhee during his investigations. He told me that she requested the summit, and that during their conversation she asked him to let Johnson and St. HOPE off the hook.
“She tried to talk me out of proceeding,” Walpin said. “I took it as simply a non-substantive attempt to help a friend.”
Rhee’s lobbying had no obvious consequences. In August 2008, Walpin wrote to Scott McGregor, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, and recommended “criminal and civil prosecution” of Johnson for “obtaining by law federal funds under a grant,” and the “filing of false and fraudulent claims” in connection with federal subsidies. As a result of Walpin’s findings, Johnson and St. HOPE were banned from receiving any further federal grants.
Walpin was fired as inspector general when President Obama came to office, and later blamed the government’s failure to prosecute or continue the criminal investigation at St. HOPE on Johnson’s close ties to the then-incoming Democratic administration. The Obama administration then removed Johnson and St. HOPE from the banned list for federal grants after Johnson agreed to repay the government some portion of the $845,018.75 in funds that Walpin had alleged were misused by Johnson.
In his letter to McGregor, Walpin made no mention of the sexual-abuse allegations Rhee was alleged to have helped quash, or of any other alleged episodes of sexual misconduct at St. HOPE attributed to Johnson in the inspector general’s reports. (Johnson has denied all allegations, and was never indicted for any of the sexual misconduct alleged in Walpin’s report.)
Rhee, who did not immediately respond to Deadspin’s requests for comment on bringing Johnson to her meeting with Trump, never faced much of a public backlash for anything contained in Walpin’s report. But her role at St. HOPE did get mentioned during her disastrous run as chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools. The coverup allegations from Sacramento resurfaced when she was asked to explain a mass layoff of teachers in 2010, and Rhee responded that she had fired teachers “who had sex with children.” She never provided information to back up that bombshell, and was run out of town later that year when voters put former Mayor Adrian Fenty, who’d brought Rhee to D.C., out of office. How it is that despite everything she’s been able to resurface on the national scene now is, perhaps, the biggest mystery of all.