Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

Secret Emails Show Kevin Johnson Spying On, Attempting To Bankrupt Enemies

Photo via AP

The city clerk of Sacramento has released a trove of correspondence between Kevin Johnson and his cronies, over which the scandal-magnet lame-duck mayor of the California capital fought a long, dirty campaign in hopes of keeping it from journalists and legal adversaries. This latest document dump has nothing as tawdry as the abuse allegations leveled against the former NBA star and documented here and elsewhere through the years. But for anybody interested in the dark side of Johnson as an administrator and public official, there is plenty of fascinating material.

The emails come mainly from the early days of Johnson’s hostile takeover of the National Conference of Black Mayors—the mayor and his minions described their mission against the historic Atlanta-based non-profit as a “coup” when they launched it in 2013—and reveal lots of no-goodnik behavior from Johnson and his coup team, a clique of civil servants on the Sacramento payroll, staffers from Johnson’s huge web of nonprofit groups, at least three public relations outfits, volunteer hangers-on, and lots of lawyers from the firm of Ballard Spahr. (At least a dozen Ballard Spahr lawyers have worked pro bono for Johnson on NCBM litigation.) The records indicate that at some point Johnson changed his goal from running the NCBM to ruining it. Johnson’s team, for example, is found dispatching secret agents to spy on NCBM board members at hotels and restaurants while conspiring to sabotage a potential $2 million windfall for the NCBM scheduled to come just a few months before he filed to have the organization dissolved through the bankruptcy courts. The documents also appear to support detractors’ long-leveled allegations that Johnson mingled the NCBM’s mission with that of Michelle Rhee, his wife and fellow school-privatization demagogue.


The city clerk’s release of the documents completes a request made under the California Public Records Act in the spring of 2015 by Cosmo Garvin, a reporter for the Sacramento News & Review. Unlike the rest of the media in the state capital, Garvin covered Johnson tenaciously and aggressively. He knew Johnson was conducting business using Gmail accounts rather than his assigned government address, so he requested any records on the city’s public servers from those personal email accounts. On July 1, 2015, Johnson sued his own city and Garvin’s weekly newspaper to prevent hundreds of emails from being made public, claiming attorney/client privilege.

The Sacramento Bee, the local daily which has run interference for Johnson for most of his tenure in office, also originally sought these emails, but, as spelled out in Johnson’s complaint against the city and SN&R, was asked by the mayor to rescind the request and complied in cowardly fashion. The Bee gave Johnson’s bizarre, wholly unprecedented suit almost no ink. That left the relatively tiny SN&R to shoulder legal expenses by itself; ultimately some costs were defrayed through contributions to a legal defense fund from folks who were appalled that a public official would actually sue a newspaper merely for making a records request. (Gawker Media, parent company of Deadspin, attempted to enter the case to get the emails, but Johnson’s lawyers and the city attorney refused to agree to our entry.) Over the past year, as legal and public pressure to do the right thing increased, Johnson released most, but not all, of the disputed emails in incremental batches. Last week, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Christopher Krueger ruled that 75 of the last 113 withheld emails didn’t deserve the protections that Johnson claimed for them and ordered a final load of emails and attachments released. Perhaps surprisingly, Johnson complied.

“We took a vote and said, ‘Hell no!’”

The bulk of the unsealed documents deal with Johnson’s takeover of the NCBM, a clandestine and ultimately disastrous effort that peaked in May 2013 when he succeeded in being named president of the group, only to be deposed by the group’s board of directors two weeks into his term. It’s been a non-stop legal battle ever since between Johnson and NCBM elders, with suits filed by and against the group’s executive director, Vanessa Williams, and a controversial bankruptcy petition all still pending. After civil litigation in Georgia courts, Johnson was restored as the NCBM’s president in early 2014, but was still clearly at war with his constituents.


Johnson’s only meaningful act after regaining the presidency was a request, filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Georgia on April 30, 2014 to have the NCBM dissolved under Chapter 7 of the federal code. Then on May 1, 2014, just one day after the bankruptcy filing and before he’d even resigned as NCBM president, Johnson founded a clone non-profit group, which he dubbed the African American Mayors Association (AAMA). He named himself president of the new group, and brought many NCBM sponsors with him. He installed AAMA’s headquarters on Pennsylvania Ave. NW in Washington, D.C.—just three blocks from the White House. (The just-released documents indicate that AAMA’s prime real estate was originally offered by former NCBM board member Clarence Anthony for use by the NCBM.)


As expected, the latest batch of documents—totaling several hundred pages—shows that Johnson’s misuse of attorney/client privilege staved off potential political embarrassments, many of them NCBM-related. He was, to give one telling example, preventing the release of his schedule for Sept. 9, 2013, which included preparation for a trip to Birmingham, Ala. The listed rehearsals included a “Students First Session” followed by “NCBM Prep.”


StudentsFirst is the charter school advocacy group founded by Michelle Rhee. (Johnson is also a major player in the school privatization movement.) The email that Johnson tried so hard to hide provides a reminder that he and Rhee went to Birmingham together to exploit the attention being given the 50th anniversary of bombing of the 16th Street Church. Amid the solemn commemorations of that seminal moment in the American civil rights movement, they co-hosted a town hall meeting promoting charter schools.

One of the reasons Johnson would presumably want this played down is that the NCBM has historically opposed charter schools, and didn’t like Johnson using their group to further an education agenda that both membership and leadership vehemently opposed. Former NCBM president Robert Bowser told me in 2014 that the group had made their stance clear to Johnson after he proposed a resolution to get the NCBM to endorse charter schools. “We took a vote and said, ‘Hell no!’ to his resolution,” Bowser said. “The black mayors are not buying the charter schools, period.” Rhee, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly despised by Washington, D.C.’s black residents when she ran its public school system from 2007 to 2010; any hint that the NCBM was being used to serve her ends would likely be toxic to the group’s core constituency.


The Birmingham meeting, as it turned, didn’t provide any obvious payoff for Rhee. StudentsFirst, which was a cash cow—the Walton Foundation, one of many deep-pocketed benefactors, gave Rhee’s group $8 million just a few months before the Alabama getaway—quietly folded earlier this year, without donating billions of dollars to education projects or meeting any of the other megalomaniacal goals Rhee loudly predicted for her non-profit on Oprah Winfrey’s show at its founding. It’s rather fitting that while StudentsFirst’s website is now largely defunct, its fundraising page is still running and ready to accept donations.

“We sent our agent to the restaurant and he placed himself within ear position of the meeting and provided photos of the attendees.”

The craziest and, for Johnson, most damaging emails are those that show how badly he and his coup team wanted to sabotage the NCBM’s participation in a potentially lucrative event in the city of Cali, Colombia scheduled for the fall of 2013.


According to reports from the Colombian government earlier in 2013, the World Summit of Mayors and Presidents of African Descent was announced in Bogota by Vanessa Williams after years of meetings with Colombian Vice-President Angelino Garzon and Oscar Gamboa Zúñiga, director of the country’s Presidential Program for Afro-Colombian Populations. More than 1,000 black elected officials from around the globe were expected to attend the summit, according to the government reports.

The just-released emails indicate Johnson and his cronies desperately wanted to derail Williams’ efforts to go through with the conference. An email sent on July 12, 2013, by longtime Johnson associate Tracy Stigler details a clandestine effort to spy on NCBM board members as they traveled to Atlanta for a scheduled meeting to plan the international extravaganza. Stigler is director of operations for Stand Up, Johnson’s well-moneyed but moribund charter school advocacy group, according to IRS filings. He is also a former president of St. Hope Development Company, the building wing of Johnson’s charter school operation. But the new emails indicate that for the coup team, Stigler was in charge of espionage. Stigler reports back to his comrades after the team planted “an agent” at the scheduled meeting place to take photos of whatever NCBM board members showed up and eavesdrop on discussions.

Johnson’s coup team gets update on wacky mission to spy on NCBM board members in July 12, 2013 email from mayoral hanger-on Tracy Stigler.

“[D]uring a phone conversation with Oscar Zuniga of Colombia we learned that Vanessa Williams was attempting to pick him up for a dinner meeting at Pascal’s Restaurant,” reads Stigler’s email. “During our conversation we convinced [Pascal] that it would not be in the best interest of the organization for him to meet with her. He agreed and decided not to attend the dinner meeting. It should be noted that the Colombia government is pledging $2m towards a NCBM event in Colombia. It appears that a subsequent meeting of Board Members. [...] occurred at Pascal’s [...] We sent our agent to the restaurant and he placed himself within ear position of the meeting and provided photos of the attendees.”


Another newly released email, dated Sept. 5, 2013 and sent by Sacramento mayoral aide and coup team member Stephanie Mash reminds Johnson’s soldiers that “it is still important for us to terminate [Vanessa Williams] prior to Colombia.” At the time that both the Stigler and Mash memos were sent, Johnson was fighting in court with the NCBM old guard and Williams to regain his presidency and assert control over the group. Johnson’s plans to muck up the NCBM’s big payday eventually succeeded when he and his team convinced government officials that Williams had no authority to represent the NCBM and was fiscally reckless. (Johnson’s charges that Williams had embezzled NCBM funds are the basis of her defamation lawsuit against him.) Although his control of the NCBM remained legally dubious, Johnson put out a press release on the week of the Colombian conference saying Williams had been fired. (Mash, after helping Johnson quash NCBM, was named the founding executive director of AAMA.)

Document suggests that the point of the spying mission was to derail a seven-figure payday for NCBM.

Johnson can’t reasonably claim he wasn’t aware how much money was on the table. The subterfuge in Atlanta came on the heels of a June 25, 2013 email about the World Summit that Gamboa Zúñiga sent to both Vanessa Williams and Johnson. In that document, which was uncovered in discovery from an earlier NCBM lawsuit, he tells Williams and Johnson that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had just approved the budget of “about $1.8 million” for the NCBM-inspired conference in his country. Gamboa Zúñiga, who was unaware of the blood feud between Williams and Johnson, invited both of them to South America in the “second week of July” to meet with Santos to celebrate and promote the event.


Johnson’s coup team instead chose that week to kick its effort to cripple the NCBM ability to profit from the World Summit into high gear.


A seven-figure payoff from the Colombia convention would have been enough to solve all of the NCBM’s financial problems. Those revenues would also have given the anti-Johnson faction on the board of directors money to hire attorneys to put up a fight against Johnson’s pure-bred pro bono attack dogs at Ballard Spahr.

“It’s hard to put into words how diabolical Kevin Johnson is.”

The emails appear to corroborate NCBM board members’ accusations that during the fight to get his presidency back, Johnson became hellbent on doing away with the organization. Those charges are seconded by Donal Smith, the former deputy mayor of Hamilton, Bermuda, who told me several months ago that Johnson and his team had sabotaged a 2014 conference that Williams and the NCBM’s anti-Johnson faction had scheduled for his city while trying to quash Johnson’s bankruptcy petition. Smith said the Sacramento mayor and his soldiers convinced convention organizers and Hamilton officials that Williams was unfit to hold a conference in the island nation, which led to the cancellation of the Bermuda gathering. Some NCBM board members claim that the Bermuda conference would have brought in a minimum of $500,000.


Since Johnson was president of the NCBM at the time the bankruptcy was filed—with the attendant legal chores being taken care of pro bono by Ballard Spahr, a firm with a large charter school financing practice—he has been able to continue claiming that he represents the NCBM. Court filings in both the Sacramento emails case and in federal bankruptcy court indicate Johnson claims to be operating in the best interests of the NCBM, a claim that defies the facts and common sense. As founder and president of AAMA, an organization that right out of the gate was seeking to serve the same constituency as the NCBM, he has shown that his only interest is in having the older, more established competitor eliminated. That would give AAMA a monopoly on the black-mayors advocacy realm.

Bottom line: The new emails appear to prove that the people attempting to have the NCBM dissolved through bankruptcy are the same folks who deliberately derailed deals that would have brought in at least $2.5 million.

Kevin Johnson and Hillary Clinton in 2015. Photo via Getty

“It’s hard to put into words how diabolical Kevin Johnson is,” says Calvin Grigsby, a San Francisco-based attorney and activist. Grigsby is now representing Vanessa Williams and other anti-Johnson NCBM stalwarts who are working to remove the group from bankruptcy. Their main legal argument, made in filings in federal court, is that Johnson filed the bankruptcy petition fraudulently. Grigsby admits his side has been legally overpowered thus far by Johnson and Ballard Spahr, but says the new emails should convince anybody who reads them how strong their case is. Johnson and his lawyers have taken steps that could prevent Grigsby and the NCBM’s old guard from ever getting a chance to use the new evidence, however: Johnson’s AAMA has entered a bid in bankruptcy court to buy NCBM’s name along with “any goodwill” associated with the historic group. Grigsby’s side conceded it does not have the money to outbid Johnson.


“The guy fabricated [a situation] so he could liquidate a company so he could start his own company,” Grigsby says, “and that new company could advance his business interests. We should have already had these emails. Kevin Johnson should have turned these over to us in discovery in the other cases. They hid them, claiming attorney/client privilege. We see that was false. What else have they hidden? The problem for us is, how do we get a court to listen to us?”

Cosmo Garvin, the guy whose efforts led to the unearthing of these emails, says even though Johnson technically lost his lawsuit, it’s hard to feel like the good guys won and the mayor lost. Garvin points out that his paper spent $100,000 in legal fees just to “keep KJ from being able to bully reporters out of the most routine sort of public records work,” while Johnson’s legal bills were taken care of by taxpayers and Ballard Spahr.


“He still managed to keep that small number of records out of reporters’ hands for more than a year,” Garvin says. “None of the people who should be minding the store, not the city attorney, city manager, the goddamn Sacramento Bee, will even acknowledge the problem. So hurray for [the release of the] emails. But big picture, I’m pretty discouraged. Johnson has completely short-circuited the Public Records Act and local media and other institutions completely failed to stop that from happening or hold anyone accountable.”

“He’s a fake.”

AAMA’s viability, which would be bolstered by the NCBM’s disappearance, could soon matter more than ever to Johnson. He’ll be on a job hunt no later than when his mayoral successor gets elected in November. Given his baggage, and the fact that Rhee’s organization is kaput, a group he started might provide one of the few soft landing spots, particularly if he’s seeking any sort of national platform away from home. (He will likely show up at an AAMA-sponsored event scheduled for Tuesday night during this week’s Democratic National Convention.)


Johnson did not respond to requests for comment left with Ben Sosenko, the mayor’s longtime spokesman and a coup team member, and Crystal Strait, who also handles media for Johnson. His official biography on the city of Sacramento’s web site makes no mention that he was ever president of the NCBM.

Johnson remains a revered figure in some circles in his hometown, mostly for cobbling together hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to prevent the local NBA team from leaving for Seattle. That accomplishment is apparently enough to get the locals to ignore sexual abuse allegations made against Johnson, and such embarrassments as the memo from legal consultants for the city, discovered and published by the otherwise demonstrably compliant Sacramento Bee, that advised the mayor to “refrain from hugging or touching anyone” at City Hall and to stop “being flirty” in the workplace. That counsel came after Ilee Muller, a former staffer in the city manager’s office, filed a sexual harassment claim against him with the city. Johnson denied Muller’s allegations, while HBO reported Johnson paid her an undisclosed sum to settle the case.


Despite all the dirt, Johnson was allowed to introduce Hillary Clinton when she campaigned in Sacramento, though reports indicate it wasn’t all huzzahs for the mayor.

He’s become fairly toxic everywhere else. He spent much of last year dodging sexual abuse allegations from national media, including accusations that he’d showered with and/or groped teenage girls he was supposed to be mentoring. The allegedly sordid side of his personal history was brought up during a White House press briefing, on HBO’s Real Sports, and, with devastating effect, when ESPN pulled “Down In the Valley,” a documentary that fawned over Johnson. ESPN’s move came amid unprecedented exposure given to settlements the mayor made with sexual abuse accusers. Days later, Johnson, who not that long ago called himself “Baby Barack” on national television and was talked about for statewide and even national office, announced that he wouldn’t seek a third term as mayor.


If he had, the release of these documents would have posed a serious problem for him. While the voting public can’t be expected to follow all the intricacies of the NCBM coup, the missives also indicate something everyone can understand: Johnson claimed the attorney/client privilege just to hide lies. A 2013 memo for Johnson’s army, for example, outlined the proper responses to negative press about their NCBM coup. That document included a list of alleged inaccuracies in the portrayal of Johnson’s hostile NCBM takeover, plus the recommended response to the media.

The biggest whopper was “lnaccuracy 4: There is a deep split between the [NCBM] board and Mayor Johnson.” Suggested response: “Approximately 25 board members have been contacted and have expressed that they support Mayor Johnson and what he is doing to create transparency and in the NCBM going forward. After all, if there is a split, how could he have been elected unanimously?”

Talking points memo sent in July 2013 tells coup team to deny Johnson faced opposition from the board of directors, even though he’d only recently been deposed by that board.

Johnson’s NCBM presidency, remember, was voided a short time after his election, and Johnson was despised by everybody I spoke with from the NCBM after his power grab. In 2014, I asked Johnson’s lawyer, Ballard Spahr’s David Pittinsky, to provide contact information for any NCBM board members who supported Johnson’s presidency and the bankruptcy decisions. Pittinsky didn’t provide any. At the same time, I called several NCBM board members and officials and asked for their feelings on Johnson. Here is a representative sample of the responses:


“He’s a fake,” Mayor Robert Bowser of East Orange, N.J. and a former NCBM president, told me. “Kevin Johnson is a coward,” said Mayor Gary R. Richardson of Midfield, Ala. “He’s just a basketball player. A basketball player with no rings,” said Mayor Michael Blunt, of Chesilhurst, NJ. “He grabbed my butt,” said Vanessa Williams.

Share This Story

About the author