Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is suing his own city and a local reporter to prevent the release of his emails. But officials of a mayoral group that the former NBA star and controversy magnet claims to be representing in his lawsuit say they’re not on his side.
“We want nothing to do with Kevin Johnson,” says Vanessa Williams, executive director of the National Conference of Black Mayors, an Atlanta-based organization that Johnson listed as a co-plaintiff in his suit. “He’s not even a member. He tried to ruin this organization. I dare Kevin Johnson to find one person with this organization who supports him. Just one! Everybody with this organization hates Kevin Johnson. Nobody gave him permission to sue for us.”
Johnson filed his odd suit after Cosmo Garvin, a reporter with the weekly Sacramento News & Review, filed a request for emails the mayor and his staff sent using private Gmail accounts while doing city business. The Sacramento Bee had made a similar records request earlier this year. Johnson has long faced accusations that he forces staffers on the public payroll to do work not related to their employment, and has them use private accounts while doing his personal bidding.
Among the communications the city attorney was prepared to release were emails between Johnson and lawyers from Ballard Spahr, a firm Johnson used during his brief and debacle-filled reign as NCBM president. Johnson’s suit, however, argues that an exemption in the public-records laws for communications between an attorney and client should prevent their release.
According to the complaint, the Sacramento Bee altered its request merely because Johnson’s attorneys asked the paper to, while Garvin “stubbornly refused” to acquiesce. So, the SacBee wasn’t sued, and Garvin was. An interview request to editor Joyce Terhaar was referred to managing editor Scott Lebar. Lebar declined to answer questions about the Johnson situation, but in an article posted last night the paper denied modifying its records request to appease Johnson.
The News & Review’s Garvin, far and away the most aggressive reporter in town when it comes to covering the mayor, admits being surprised to find out that the major daily was not a fellow defendant.
“I figured I’d have some cover since I knew the Bee had made the same request,” says Garvin. “It was kind of scary to learn that they dropped out and I was on my own.”
Williams and other NCBM board members were also surprised the group was listed as a plaintiff in Johnson’s lawsuit, given how contentious the mayor’s relationship with them has been. Johnson was elected president of NCBM in 2013 under disputed circumstances. The group’s general counsel voided Johnson’s election just two weeks into his presidency, and Johnson sued to have his presidency restored. He and NCBM officials have been suing each other ever since. Williams is personally suing Johnson for defamation.
In the spring of 2014, having lost the support of the NCBM standbys, Johnson filed a petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to have NCBM dissolved under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code. That move was against the wishes of many NCBM veterans, who are still fighting Johnson’s filing and trying to keep the group solvent. Johnson resigned from NCBM just after filing the bankruptcy petition, then started up a clone organization called the African American Mayors Association. Johnson’s first act after founding AAMA was to name himself the new group’s president.
A hearing on Johnson’s suit is scheduled for a Sacramento courtroom today. This morning, the NCBM board held an emergency meeting and unanimously passed a resolution that the group “refutes any involvement” in Johnson’s suit, saying the litigation was “solely filed as an attempt to only protect the personal interest of Johnson and [Ballard Spahr].” The resolution, signed by reigning NCBM president Gary Richardson, also requests that the court deny Johnson’s request to withhold any NCBM-related emails.
“We want all emails released,” says Williams.
The NCBM board also resolved to send Johnson a cease-and-desist order preventing him from claiming to represent the group. The board is similarly peeved that Ballard Spahr, the law firm representing Johnson in this suit, claims to represent NCBM. Ballard Spahr now serves as counsel for AAMA, the group Johnson founded as an NCBM rival.
The latest lawsuit reminded Williams of a particular document her lawyers found during the discovery phase of her case. It was a cheat sheet written for Johnson to carry while he staged his coup, reminding him to constantly tell constituents, “There needs to be transparency and accountability.”
Williams is one repeating that theme now.
“Kevin Johnson came in saying the Conference of Black Mayors needed transparency!” she says. “Now he’s trying to use the group to hide something? No, no, no you’re not! We’re not going to do things this way! Like Kevin Johnson said to us: We need transparency! I want to ask him: What are you hiding? Where’s the damn transparency now? Kevin Johnson can go to hell. Let’s see the damn emails.”
Below: Johnson’s complaints, and the NCBM’s resolution to tell Johnson to keep their name out of his mouth.