It’s no secret that Kevin Johnson wants certain girls and women to keep what they have to say about him to themselves. Some of what the former NBA superstar and current scandal-magnet mayor of Sacramento, Calif. is willing to do to convince them is well-known; some less so. The more that comes to light, though, the more outrageous it seems.
Recently, one of Johnson’s attorneys tried to convince one of his many legal adversaries to stop talking to Deadspin—even going so far as to insert a “No Deadspin!” clause into a settlement offer.
This revelation comes as Johnson is in the worst spot of his three-decade run in the public eye. ESPN canceled the debut of Down in the Valley, a documentary that deified Johnson for having finagled $255 million in public money to keep the local NBA franchise in his hometown but totally ignored his well-documented dark side. The seamiest portions of Johnson’s back story involve the many allegations of sexual abuse and harassment that have come his way his way since the mid-1990s. Johnson has never been charged with a sex crime, but ESPN’s shelving the movie comes amid growing suspicions that a key reason none of the abuse claims made against him derailed his rise to power is that he made legal settlements that forced alleged victims to hush up.
His longtime political adviser, Steve Maviglio, did nothing to stem the cratering of the mayor’s approval rating with recent comments that seem to acknowledge Johnson’s penchant for settling.
“People try to settle things because they don’t want things drawn out over long periods of time. They don’t want all this hashed out in public,” Maviglio told the Sacramento CBS affiliate last week, when asked why the mayor didn’t fight the allegations instead. “They want to settle things and move on with their lives.”
Easier said than done.
The tactic of convincing accusers to stay mum appears to have served Johnson well through the years. Deadspin recently reported on Mandi Koba’s allegations that Johnson sexually abused her when she was a teenager. Koba met Johnson in Phoenix in 1995, when he was a superstar with the Phoenix Suns and she was a 15-year-old high school kid. The details of what allegedly ensued over the next several months are contained in a police report and in a video recording of police interviewing Koba. Cops at the time referred to it as an investigation into “a celebrity involved in a reported child molestation.”
Johnson was never charged criminally. Koba, now 36, has told Deadspin that she only stayed quiet all these years because Johnson paid $230,600 to get her to never talk about their dealings again except to a “a priest, a therapist, or a lawyer.” She says that she broke that agreement because she got sick of “protecting” him.
Johnson’s representatives have not responded to Deadspin’s repeated requests that he confirm or deny that he made a settlement with Koba. If he did, he got almost two decades of silence out of the deal. And there’s plenty of evidence that he’s been using the same strategy in the years since.
Deadspin recently obtained a proposed settlement offer—which counts silence among its terms—that Johnson’s attorneys at Ballard Spahr, a well-known national firm, made to Vanessa Williams, the executive director of the National Conference of Black Mayors. The NCBM is an Atlanta-based non-profit with historic roots that Johnson and his army of lawyers have now been trying to kill off for about two and a half years. Johnson sued Williams and several other NCBM officials in June 2013, as what he described as a “coup” against the organization that he and his cronies had carried out was falling apart. Williams countersued Johnson for defamation. They’ve been tied up in related litigation ever since.
Ballard Spahr lawyers have—for reasons that it would be interesting to hear explained—been handling all sorts of NCBM-related work pro bono. (Ballard Spahr, which has been representing Johnson since the spring of 2013, was not involved in Johnson’s 1997 settlement with Koba over molestation allegations.)
Last month, one of Johnson’s Ballard Spahr attack dogs, David Pittinsky, approached Williams with an offer to drop a suit against her. In return, Williams would have to meet several demands, spelled out in the agreement.
A proposed settlement offer, as provided by NCBM executive director Vanessa Williams
The biggest of the demands is that Williams must stop contesting Johnson’s petition to dissolve the NCBM through the bankruptcy courts. That would mean Johnson’s goal of doing away with the group would be complete. (Johnson started a competing organization, called the African American Mayors Association, the day after he filed a Chapter 7 petition for the NCBM that board members of the group now say was illegitimate. Ballard Spahr is now serving as legal counsel for Johnson’s new group—pro bono, of course.)
The strangest demand? “Mrs. Williams would retract all of her statements to Deadspin pursuant to the settlement agreement,” reads Pittinsky’s settlement offer. “She would not have to say her statements were false. All she would have to do is retract them and agree not to talk to Deadspin again.”
Since late last year, Williams has spoken with Deadspin about Johnson, accusing him of various professional and personal malfeasances related to the NCBM coup. Williams says she is personally broke as a result of Johnson freezing NCBM’s bank accounts in 2013 and taking sponsors away from the group.
Whether there was an actual concerted effort to bankrupt Williams is an open question; either way, the discovery phase of her civil case against Johnson has produced bizarre evidence. In one email chain, for example, members of Johnson’s coup team—which included at least four private public relations firms plus the communications staff of the city of Sacramento—discuss a TV news report slamming Williams that aired on the Fox affiliate in Atlanta. Enoch Woodhouse, who until recently served as superintendent of St. HOPE, Johnson’s charter school chain in Sacramento, suggests to correspondents including Johnson’s wife Michelle Rhee and Aisha Lowe, executive director of Stand Up, a charter school advocacy group founded by Johnson, that a settlement may leave Williams too impoverished to “continue to live her lifestyle.”
In response, Lowe asks, “Any good charters in Uganda?”
Kevin Johnson associates discuss Vanessa Williams’s future
Williams’s connection to Uganda—“We hear she has a house there,” Lowe writes of Williams, who is from Nevada and lived in Atlanta at this time—is not explained or obvious.
Pittinsky has threatened legal action against Deadspin several times as we’ve reported on Johnson’s NCBM coup. On one occasion, the lawyer said he would sue Deadspin “for defamation and slander” for repeating Williams’s allegation that Johnson was motivated to ruin her because she spurned romantic advances toward her at an NCBM meeting in Washington, D.C. “He grabbed my butt,” Williams told me last year. Williams also said that during that same convention, Johnson made late-night email and phone advances that she took as a booty call. There were no witnesses to the alleged groping; Williams provided emails from Johnson that began at 11:08 pm, but seem benign; and Pittinsky denied that Williams’s version was true.
But Dora Muhammad, former communications director for the NCBM, says she was in the room when Johnson started contacting Williams, and alleges there was no mistaking what was going on.
An email from Kevin Johnson
“We were all like, ‘What time is it? This is really out of order!’” Muhammad told Deadspin. “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.”
Johnson was publicly accused of similar sexual aggression by a Sacramento civil servant named Estrellita Ilee Muller this past spring, months after Williams first told Deadspin that the mayor had groped her, but before her story had been published. According to a claim Muller filed with the city clerk’s office, the mayor began sexually harassing her in late December 2013. Johnson’s security guard summoned Muller to the mayor’s private library at City Hall. The mayor hugged Muller against her wishes, the report alleged, and began “pressing his body against [hers] and asked her if she ‘felt it.’” Muller reported that she told the mayor that she was married, to which Johnson asked her if she was “game” to “enter into a sexual relationship with him.” Muller said she told him no, but that the harassment continued on the job for several months afterwards.
Muller requested damages of $200,000 in her filing with the city. She and her lawyer, Etan Rosen, stopped talking about Johnson’s alleged harassment shortly after the local media got wind of the staffer’s complaint.
A detail from a claim made against Kevin Johnson this spring
Johnson denied Muller’s accusations, and then, just as a Sacramento Bee reporter began looking into the charges, the mayor’s office released a statement on behalf of Rosen, stating that his client was “satisfied with the conclusion of this matter.” Johnson has refused to answer questions from local media about whether he made a financial settlement with Muller. Rosen did not return several calls and emails requesting comment from Deadspin about a possible settlement. Robin Ireland, director of communications for Ballard Spahr, did not respond to questions from Deadspin about whether the firm represented Johnson during any settlement negotiations with Muller. The Sacramento Bee published a memo last week showing that as a result of the Muller matter, Johnson has been told by legal advisors “to refrain from hugging or touching anyone in the workplace or at work-related events (outside of a hand shake).”
Maviglio again added to whatever humiliation the memo’s release caused Johnson by telling the Bee, “Telling a politician not to hug someone is like telling a fisherman not to fish.”
While neither Johnson nor Muller will talk about why she won’t talk, Vanessa Williams freely admits that Johnson wants to make a deal to keep her quiet. I ask her if she will accept the terms, “No Deadspin!” clause and all.
“I am not 15 years old,” she says. “Kevin Johnson can kiss my black ass.”
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