The African American Mayors Association, led by Kevin Johnson, opens its annual meeting today in Washington, D.C. The former NBA star and current mayor of Sacramento has been the president of the association since its founding in 2013—when, as president of the Atlanta-based National Conference of Black Mayors, he declared the older group bankrupt and resigned from it.
The NCBM was a historically significant but poorly managed organization. By the time Johnson walked away from it to start the competing AAMA, it was crippled. This produced litigation now sitting in county and federal courthouses in the state of Georgia, in which remaining members of the NCBM accuse Johnson of first scheming to seize control of the group, then destroying it.
The filings allege that Johnson covertly organized a public/private consortium to launch what he called a “coup” against the NCBM. It was a study in overkill. His army included three public-sector PR firms plus his own mayoral communications staff, a law firm that boasts about its prominent role in the charter school industry, and his wife, the charter-school activist Michelle Rhee.
For all his side’s might, Johnson’s mission was a disaster. As soon as the old group’s old guard fought back, Johnson changed his goal from taking over NCBM to abolishing it. Then he started a clone organization. His first act upon founding AAMA was to install himself as president. His new group’s mission statement claims “AAMA was founded on the principals of transparency and accountability.” Johnson probably meant “principles,” but either way, there’s lots of evidence that Johnson viewed “transparency” as the enemy of his campaign. The story of his NCBM debacle features so much Machiavellian scheming, in fact, that even seasoned Johnson watchers are awed.
Kevin Johnson and Michelle Rhee at the Kentucky Derby, 2013. Photo via Getty
“It’s raw ambition,” says John See of the American Federation of Teachers, a longtime opponent of pretty much everything Johnson and Rhee stand for. “If you want to be a big shot someday, this is the kind of planning you have to do. But you don’t want to put it on paper and have it get out.”
Unluckily for Johnson, the litigation means the details of his failed mission, and allegations of fraud, forgery, and fondling, are getting out. Those cases are pending. But NCBM veterans, now clinging to a carcass of the organization that Johnson left behind, are ready to deliver their verdicts on Sacramento’s favorite son.
“He’s a fake,” says Mayor Robert Bowser of East Orange, N.J.
“Kevin Johnson is a coward,” says Mayor Gary R. Richardson of Midfield, Ala.
“He’s just a basketball player. A basketball player with no rings,” says Mayor Michael Blunt, of Chesilhurst, NJ.
“He grabbed my butt,” says Vanessa Williams, NCBM’s executive director.
“Baby Barack” plots a coup
Johnson, a three-time All-Star in 12 seasons with the Phoenix Suns, retired from the NBA in 2000 and returned to his native Sacramento. He became a charter schoolmaster and entered politics. His hoops past and happier-than-you smile served Johnson well; in 2008, he was elected as his hometown’s first black mayor, and was hailed as a rising star in the Democratic Party. He began calling himself “Baby Barack.”
Since then, he’s survived sex and corruption scandals of the sort that have ended countless political careers. After securing hundreds of millions in public funds to pay for a new arena for the Sacramento Kings, he’s now the most popular guy in the least thought-about city of half a million people in the country.
Johnson apparently viewed the NCBM takeover as a way to expand his personal brand beyond his hometown. The group was founded in the early 1970s as the Southern Conference of Black Mayors; according to NCBM’s own history, there were only 24 qualifying chief executives in the U.S. at the time. Black mayors are no longer a rarity, but they are found overwhelmingly in small burgs. (The NCBM says 88 percent of the more than 500 eligible public officials nationwide serve cities with populations of less than 50,000.)
“He looked at us and saw that all the small town mayors are dumb and country,” says Mayor Blunt, who oversees a New Jersey town with a population of just 1,613. “And so he’s going to just overpower them and take the organization and keep it for himself.”
NCBM certainly looked easy to overpower. In 2010, then-NCBM president Mayor George Grace of St. Gabriel, La., was indicted on racketeering charges after getting filmed taking bribes as part of an FBI sting called Operation Blighted Officials. In November 2014, Grace was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
George Grace holds a press conference with jars of oil-contaminated water, 2010. Photo via AP
The investigation showed the shoddiness of NCBM’s administration. Records of revenues and expenditures were scarce, and executive director Vanessa Williams was found to be using the non-profit’s credit cards for personal expenditures.
“This place was a mess, and I was stupid and sloppy, no question,” Williams says. “But I was not a criminal.”
Williams claimed that the NCBM board had allowed her to use the credit cards to make up for years of not paying her the $180,000 annual salary she was promised. And when lawmen put away Grace, they lauded Williams, despite knowing about the messy accounting. In an April 10, 2012, letter, U.S. Attorney Donald J. Cazayoux, Jr., thanked her for providing “cooperation and assistance” in helping his office bust Grace.
“If anything, she was a victim [of Grace] and the organization was a victim,” Corey R. Amundson, the assistant US Attorney who oversaw the sting, told me recently.
NCBM brass thought Johnson could be the savior who would lead them past the Grace scandal. In 2011, Johnson accepted an invitation to join the NCBM board of directors, and he was appointed first vice-president a year later. Williams began weekly phone conferences with Johnson’s staff to get him up to speed, and told him of the horrible fiscal condition that Grace had left the group in.
By 2013, Johnson was seen by everyone in the group as the frontrunner in its next presidential election, to be held at its annual convention in Atlanta in late May. But the case documents show that, for whatever reason, Johnson was unwilling to wait for organizational destiny to take its course. Instead, in early 2013, his staff produced a PowerPoint presentation titled “Annual Meeting ‘Coup,’” outlining a hilariously and senselessly aggressive plan of attack on the unsuspecting nonprofit.
Documents turned over in discovery show that Johnson spent months scheming to seize the presidency before the election could be held. In their most Nixonian moments, the coup records detail Johnson’s fixation on ousting Williams. Emails and spreadsheets obtained by Deadspin show he hoped to convince membership that the bumbling executive director was the root of all the NCBM’s problems. Emails show that Johnson and his soldiers figured that negative press would be the best way to get Williams to either quit or to entice the NCBM board to fire her.
Coincidentally or not, days before the convention, Atlanta’s WAGA-TV aired the first of a series of reports on the NCBM. The spot pinned all of the group’s financial woes on Williams, highlighting that she had used the corporate credit card through the years at high-end retail outlets including Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany’s. Mayor Grace was not mentioned.
One email chain that came out in discovery finds Johnson’s coup brigade celebrating one of the WAGA reports that brutalized Williams. “Amen!” Rhee cheerleads.
Williams and other NCBM officials say they were initially blindsided by the WAGA reports, but claim to now know exactly from where the stories emanated. “Kevin set up the whole thing!” Bowser said.
David Pittinsky, a lawyer with the Philadelphia firm of Ballard Spahr and one of the many attorneys detailed to the Johnson takeover team, denies his client leaked any information about Williams or NCBM to WAGA.
“Neither Mayor Johnson nor anyone on his staff had any prior knowledge of this report,” Pittinsky says.
Be that as it may, the coup docs show that Johnson’s PR battalion included an Atlanta-based firm, Dickerson Communications; when he’s not flacking, its president, Jeff Dickerson, moonlights as a pundit on a weekly roundtable news show called The Georgia Gang that airs on WAGA.
The coup docs also show Johnson and his team deciding to search for a law firm independent of the NCBM that would provide “legal advice on deposing Vanessa” without any of the group’s officials finding out about it. Kevin Hiestand, another takeover team attorney, accepted that task while pledging to be discreet about the effort to get rid of Williams “for fear of word spreading.” Hiestand’s ties to Johnson go back to at least 1996, when he helped Johnson, then with the Phoenix Suns, get out of possibly his most sordid legal scrape, which grew out of his courtship of a girl that began when she was 15. A decade later, Hiestand was again instrumental in helping Johnson survive sexual predator allegations leveled against him by students, volunteers and staffers at St. HOPE Academy, a charter school operation in Sacramento.
Kevin Johnson introduces President Obama during an event for the U.S. Conference of Mayors in the White House, 2015. Photo via Getty
Other emails find coup planner Aisha Lowe, an executive director of Stand Up, Johnson’s pro-charter school lobbying group, advising the mayor that he should publicly “appear to support VW”—meaning Vanessa Williams—while privately plotting her destruction. Lowe was at the same time preparing talking points for Johnson to use with NCBM members during the takeover. Among the go-to phrases? “There needs to be transparency and accountability.”
A bold scheme, carried out badly
According to Johnson’s plan, Bowser, the NCBM’s sitting president at the time of the attack, would be collateral damage in the smear campaign of Williams, since the membership would want to punish him for being in charge while Williams shopped at Tiffany’s on the nonprofit’s dime. The coup team even drew up a resignation letter for Bowser without consulting him. (“[A]t this time, the City of East Orange, New Jersey, where I currently serve as mayor, requires my full and undivided attention,” reads the letter, which was included in the coup docs.)
As first vice-president, Johnson would have assumed the presidency if Bowser quit before elections were held. And as president, Johnson would also be made head of the NCBM’s board of directors, with a free hand to install his cronies in positions of power.
“He wanted to ride into Atlanta and look like some hero there to save the organization from ruin,” Williams says. “He was really a Trojan horse, ready to come in with all his minions.”
But when Johnson showed up for the annual meeting, he wasn’t fawned upon or hailed as a white knight by membership. Quite the opposite. The WAGA reports on the NCBM had caused the rank and file to rally around Williams and Bowser and turn on Johnson.
“Ms. Williams worked for this group and never got paid,” says Mayor Earnest Nash of Gould, Ark. “We owe her money. Mr. Johnson knew what she’d gone through for this group, and yet he still attacked her.”
For all his preparations, Johnson didn’t have a contingency plan to deal with the mess that he encountered in Atlanta. So as soon as the convention began, according to several veteran NCBM officials, Johnson tried to launch a cartoonish power-grab. He arranged for an election to go forward against the wishes of the elders, they say, and claimed victory by voice vote.
Johnson then quickly appointed what he called a “Special Task Force” made up of NCBM newcomers, named himself head of the task force, and granted this new body all the powers normally held by the NCBM board of directors. He also created a new position, Special Task Force Counsel; filled that slot with his buddies from the charter-school-loving firm of Ballard Spahr; and assigned them them the legal powers traditionally held by NCBM’s general counsel.
“That task force was just to circumvent the board,” says Mayor Gary Richardson of Midfield, Ala., an NCBM board member. (Johnson’s task force strategy should ring familiar to anybody who followed his failed campaigns for “Strong Mayor” initiatives, which would have usurped powers from the Sacramento city council and given them to him. Remind yourself never to let this guy on your condo board.)
Johnson ordered his task force, as its first task, to investigate Williams. He then issued a memo commanding Williams to not talk to the media or anybody on the NCBM board of directors. Williams, overmatched as she surely was, didn’t quit. Emails obtained by Deadspin show that her staying on left Johnson befuddled. At one point Johnson urged his coup team to brainstorm on how to “turn up the heat” on Williams to force her out. Wellington Webb, former mayor of Denver and now a Johnson cohort, suggested, apparently seriously, that KJ should “take her parking spot.”
Johnson’s presidency of the NCBM lasted a lot less time than it took to plan his coup.
Kevin Johnson goes up against the Golden State Warriors, 1990. Photo via AP
“We had to remind him, ‘We elected you president, not king!’” Gary Richardson says. “We’re a democratic organization, and the governing body is the board, just like if you’re a mayor, the governing board of your city is the council.”
Sue Winchester, the group’s general counsel, sent an email blast to members on June 13, 2013, informing the NCBM community that Johnson had failed to “comply with NCBM bylaws” when calling for an election. Winchester voided Johnson’s presidency. At that point, Johnson had been NCBM president for just 14 days; Bowser, the guy for whom Johnson had written a resignation letter, took over the presidency once again.
Johnson took a scorched-earth approach toward the folks who’d rejected his advances. A week after Winchester ruled his election null and void, he filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court, personally naming Williams and other NCBM officials as defendants. Lawyers from Ballard Spahr filed a motion for a restraining order asking the court to declare him the “validly elected President of NCBM.” In return, Williams sued Johnson for defamation.
“He’s a sneaky, no-good bastard”
The kerfuffle left NCBM with two boards and two presidents, meaning nobody could really do anything. But Johnson kept up his campaign against Williams. He sent Williams a letter telling her she was fired “effective immediately” for using the company credit card “without board approval.” Bowser and the old board quickly told Williams to ignore Johnson and stay on the job.
Johnson then set out to choke the NCBM’s cash flow. He advised sponsors to stop funding the group, and got a Ballard Spahr attorney to have its bank accounts frozen. That put the NCBM’s small staff out of work, and meant Williams was no longer able to use the NCBM credit card. Conferences were the primary source of revenues for the NCBM, but Johnson made scheduling events impossible.
“Whenever we’d try to book anything,” says Williams, “his people would call the venue and tell them they wouldn’t get paid.”
No annual meetings, including the 40th anniversary convention planned for last year, have been held since Johnson staged his coup. He shut down the NCBM’s website, too.
Johnson has won one legal victory. In late March 2014, the Fulton County judge ruled in favor of his pre-trial motion to validate his election, pointing out that despite any alleged procedural flaws in the voting, Johnson had been the only candidate nominated for the NCBM’s presidency. The judge left decisions about which NCBM board of directors was legitimate up to the litigants, however, so the intramural squabble continued to paralyze the nonprofit.
By the time the presidential ruling came down, Johnson knew he couldn’t lead the group. Otis Wallace, a board member and mayor of Florida City, Fla., had been appointed by Johnson as a member of the “Special Task Force” and ordered to dig up dirt on Williams. But his affidavit in the NCBM litigation was brutal to Johnson. He says that Johnson had been “publicly misrepresenting” the truth by stating that Williams had taken NCBM money without the board’s permission and that he fully supported “expelling Mr. Johnson from NCBM.”
The old guard was showing Johnson that they knew how to weaponize the media, too. Mayor Nash went on Black Power Radio, the podcast of the New Black Panther Party and, with Panther spokesman Hashim Nzinga, trashed Johnson over his convention behavior.
“He’s a sneaky, no-good bastard,” Nzinga said of Johnson. “I watched sabotage and I watched him stab [Williams] in the back so deep.”
Johnson seemed to embrace the role of saboteur. On April 30, 2013, he went to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Georgia and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on behalf of NCBM. He made no attempt at financial reorganization, which would have been allowed under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code, and went straight to trying to liquidate the group. He resigned as president of NCBM eight days later. He founded AAMA the next week and appointed himself president.
“We were all like, ‘What time is it? This is really out of order!’”
Bowser has his own theory on what motivated Johnson.
“The best we could do is tie it to charter schools,” he says.
The makeup of Johnson’s coup team encourages that explanation. Johnson and Rhee are now the reigning It Couple among charter-school enthusiasts. Rhee has access to money that Johnson can only dream about, having been funded through the years by right-wing moneybags Sam Walton and Rupert Murdoch.
Bowser says that Johnson, before his coup, had proposed a resolution saying NCBM endorsed the charter-school movement.
“We took a vote and said, ‘Hell no!’ to his resolution,” Bowser says. “The black mayors are not buying the charter schools, period.”
Johnson pushed charters while his status as NCBM president was in doubt. In September 2013, he showed up in Birmingham, Ala., for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a shocking 1964 event in which four black children were murdered, forcing a previously ambivalent America to face the evils of the Jim Crow South.
Johnson used the memorial to cheerlead charter schools. He emceed a town hall meeting that featured Rhee giving her usual pro-charter spiel. Rhee’s opponents let on how pissed they were when word got out that her summit with Johnson on charter schools was scheduled to be held at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Because of the rancor, the town hall meeting was moved to a nearby community center.
Michelle Rhee attempts thought leadership at a 2014 New York Times event. Photo via Getty
Then there’s Ballard Spahr. During the takeover, Valarie J. Allen, a partner in Ballard Spahr’s Philadelphia offices, sent a missive to the NCBM’s general counsel, Sue Winchester, threatening to report her to “the California Bar” if she didn’t comply with Johnson’s dictates. It turns out that Allen’s prime role with the firm is to run its charter school portfolio. And that’s a big job. “In the past 10 years, Ballard Spahr has helped more than 60 charter schools ... secure more than $676 million in tax-exempt bond funding,” reads the sales pitch Allen makes to charter schools operators on the firm’s website. Allen goes on to boast that Ballard Spahr handles “more than 10 percent” of all charter-school financing nationwide.
Allen did not respond to a request for an interview for this story. But David Pittinsky, a Ballard Spahr attorney on Johnson’s team, denies that the firm’s participation in his takeover was part of an attempt to drum up charter school business.
“This has nothing to do with charter schools,” Pittinsky says, insisting that he was unaware the firm had any involvement with charters.
Ballard Spahr is now listed as a “pro bono partner” of Johnson’s new African American Mayors Association. Johnson is scheduled to host a seminar on education tomorrow at his group’s convention. His four-person panel will consist of Lars Beck of the Scholar Academies Charter Network; Kevin Chavous, author of Serving Our Children: Charter Schools and the Reform of American Public Education; Jenny Niles, founder of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School; and George Parker, a senior fellow of StudentsFirst, Michelle Rhee’s charter school advocacy group.
Vanessa Williams, meanwhile, alleges that Johnson’s motivation might have been less high-minded. She says that Johnson tried crushing her because she once turned down his romantic advances, claiming that Johnson acted inappropriately when they met at an NCBM meeting in Washington, D.C. in June 2011.
“He hugged me,” she says, “and I’m saying to myself, ‘Is he touching my butt?’ Yes, he was touching my butt.”
She claims later that night, Johnson emailed her, then made what she took to be a booty call over the phone. She says she declined. (Johnson and Rhee had announced in the fall of 2009 that they were engaged, but didn’t marry until September 2011.) Williams provided an email sent by Johnson at 11:18 pm on the night of the D.C. gathering, in which Johnson seems friendly and bored—”how are you? how did today go? anything going on this weekend?” Johnson writes.
Dora Muhammad, former communications director for the NCBM, says she was in the hotel room with Williams and other female NCBM staffers when Johnson began contacting her boss. Muhammad says she remembers initially being excited to have Johnson getting involved with NCBM, but that his approaching Williams at that hour and making what she took to be obvious romantic overtures turned her and her co-workers off.
“We were all like, ‘What time is it? This is really out of order!’” says Muhammad, now a technical writer in the Washington, D.C., area. “She had to remind him that she was a married woman. We were all very offended. There were mayors who were very protective of us, and the mayors were like father figures to us. For somebody stepping into a leadership role, somebody that a lot of mayors were looking forward to working with, you can’t come in and violate our integrity like he did. If she was a man in that position, we never would have been approached that way.”
Williams says she didn’t make a stink about Johnson’s comportment at the time because she thought her organization needed him, and she worried that nobody would believe her given his celebrity status. But his aggression with her during the coup reminded her of the alleged overly touchy encounter.
“He wanted to destroy me,” Williams says. “This was so personal.”
Neither the butt-touching nor booty-call claim is included in Williams’ defamation suit against Johnson.
A small child yawns at a 2009 Kevin Johnson campaign event. Photo via AP
Johnson is by now an easy target for this type of allegation. Just two weeks ago, he faced yet another accusation of sexual inappropriateness, this time from an underling in the Sacramento government. He denied the latest claim.
During a phone interview, Pittinsky said that Johnson’s issues with Williams were all related to her allegedly taking NCBM funds for personal use and general administrative incompetence. Pittinsky blasted Williams’s booty-call allegations.
“There is no truth to Williams’ defamatory and slanderous accusation that Mayor Johnson made romantic advances to her in 2011 or any other time,” Pittinsky told me.
A day later, the attorney sent along the following statement: “[N]ot once during the entire time period from 2011 to your email yesterday in all of the events, charges and countercharges involved in these disputes with Williams has she ever asserted that Mayor Johnson made a romantic advance on her in 2011 and that, because she rejected his advance, he decided to punish her by terminating her. This is a completely false, defamatory and slanderous assertion and, if you give it any credence by republishing Williams’s assertion, we will be forced to sue you and Deadspin for defamation and slander.”
“We did this for the good of the organization”
The NCBM’s bankruptcy filing is pending as of press time. If accepted, it would mean that for all the time and money he spent trying to take over the organization, Johnson’s only accomplishment as its leader would be getting rid of it.
Williams and the old board, however, are attempting to get Johnson’s petition thrown out and keep the NCBM afloat. The crux of their argument is that Johnson’s Chapter 7 filing was made against the wishes of the board of directors and for self-serving reasons; he had already decided to form a new organization, so getting rid of NCBM removed a competitor. Williams also alleges that Johnson’s filing is full of bad faith.
“He says we owe more money than we owe!” she tells me. “Why would he do that except to try to destroy us?”
There are also claims from NCBM mainstays that Johnson’s petition contained forgeries. NCBM’s parliamentarian, Mayor John White of Ames, Texas, is among the board members whose signatures appear on the Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. He says it shouldn’t be.
“I have not signed anything,” White tells me. “I told Kevin Johnson that I was against filing for bankruptcy. How’d my name get there?”
Johnson’s lawyers say the signature is legit.
“I am surprised by [White’s forgery] statement given that he signed the NCBM resolution authorizing the filing of the petition for bankruptcy,” says Pittinsky.
Williams says Johnson’s lawyers are trying to arrange a deal where they’ll work to get the NCBM out of bankruptcy without liquidation if she drops her defamation claim. She’s not in any hurry to accept that offer.
“I never stole anything,” Williams says. “And Kevin Johnson has put all this stuff out there about me. Now they want to settle. If I’m a thief, why do they want to settle with me? But I don’t want to settle. Everybody knows Kevin Johnson is an asshole, but nobody’s willing to be the first person to say that.”
Pittinsky tells me that Johnson put in a “Herculean effort” in his attempt to run the NCBM, and that things just didn’t work out. The attorney also asserts that Johnson doesn’t regret his NCBM coup, regardless of how horribly it turned out.
“It has served him well,” Pittinsky says. “We did this for the good of the organization.”
Dissolving the organization was for the good of the organization? “There was no other choice,” the lawyer says.
I emailed Pittinsky several months ago and asked him to provide contact info for any NCBM board members who supported Johnson’s presidential election and bankruptcy filing. He did not respond.
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