14 National Conference of Black Mayors members threaten Kevin Johnson and city with lawsuit

The mayors and the group’s executive director claim defamation and lost income

The mayor, his staff on city payroll and volunteers for his private nonprofits worked to discredit and destroy the Atlanta-based National Conference of Black Mayors—and now mayors plan to sue K.J. and the city of Sacramento.

The mayor, his staff on city payroll and volunteers for his private nonprofits worked to discredit and destroy the Atlanta-based National Conference of Black Mayors—and now mayors plan to sue K.J. and the city of Sacramento.

ILLUSTRATION BY brian taylor

SN&R’s legal battle with Kevin Johnson and Ballard Spahr continues, and will see its day in court in April. Look for additional coverage on the National Conference of Black Mayors situation and our litigation in upcoming issuesof SN&R.

Mayor Kevin Johnson probably wants to leave last week far, far behind.

First, on March 22, HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel aired its investigation into his alleged sexual misconduct with underage girls, which featured, for the first time, multiple accusers speaking out in front of cameras. The website Deadspin said the episode “hammered another nail into Kevin Johnson’s political coffin.”

But the mayor continued to deny the accusations, and spokesperson Ben Sosenko said in a statement to The Sacramento Bee that the 23-minute segment was “rehashed.”

Still more bad news for Johnson arrived the next day, when 14 mayors from all over the country filed a claim with Sacramento’s city clerk, threatening to sue K.J. in his capacity as mayor, and also the city itself.

The claim states that the mayors— in their role as board members of the Atlanta-based National Conference of Black Mayors—intend to litigate the city and Johnson for defamation and interfering in NCBM business contracts. The lawsuit will be filed in April.

Specifically, the mayors say that Johnson, his city staff and volunteers from his Stand Up education nonprofit coordinated a smear campaign against the NCBM board and employees. The claim also states that Team K.J. unlawfully obtained NCBM banking records and worked to quash NCBM contracts.

“[Johnson] put a cloud over the name of all the board members,” said attorney Kenneth Muhammad, who filed the claim on behalf of the NCBM mayors. “It really has had an impact on the mayors in real ways.”

This all dates back to 2013, when Johnson, his staff and volunteers began working to get him elected as president of NCBM. Court documents obtained by SN&R show that Johnson’s office first sought to dismantle the group in February, long before his election as board president in May of that year.

The NCBM claim again exposed how public employees do noncity work inside the mayor’s office. The NCBM mayors are specifically accusing city staff, including Sosenko and senior adviser Cassandra Jennings, plus volunteers with his education nonprofit, of colluding to damage NCBM.

The NCBM mayors also hope to prove that Johnson worked behind the scenes to dismiss its executive director, Vanessa Williams. Williams has been accused of spending organization dollars on her kids’ private-school tuition and shopping sprees.

Williams says the accusations are untrue and were part of a public-relations effort to force her to resign. “You can call me many things, but I am not a liar, and I am not a thief,” she told SN&R last week. Williams has also never been charged with any wrongdoing.

Muhammad said that Williams plans to file her own claim against the city this week, also as a precursor for litigation. Williams says she’s been defamed and has lost her ability to earn a living because of Johnson. “Not only do you kill my reputation, but you kill my source of income, because my whole background is financing,” she said.

Neither the city attorney nor the city manager’s office responded to an email asking to discuss the claim. The mayor’s office also did not respond to a request to to discuss the NCBM situation.

Why the mayors are suing K.J.

Many media outlets from all over the country have written about the Johnson/NCBM drama. And, by all accounts, NCBM—while a longstanding and respected national organization—was poorly led and faced serious financial issues. Previous NCBM president Mayor George Grace, for instance, was indicted in 2010 and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2014 for accepting bribes.

An FBI investigation of NCBM at that time revealed that Williams used the organization’s credit card for personal use. Williams, though, says the NCBM board permitted her to make these expenses, since they were not paying her a salary. “It was in my contract with the organization,” she said.

After the Grace indictment, Johnson showed up in Atlanta in 2011 and joined NCBM as a member. In 2013, the mayor had already been elected vice president and was eyeing board presidency, which would be voted on in May of that year.

In advance of the May 2013 NCBM annual meeting and vote, the mayor’s staff and volunteers ramped up an effort to secure his election as president—and get Williams fired.

Perhaps most famously, someone on Johnson’s team created a PowerPoint-style slide, which featured the city of Sacramento seal and the words “National Conference of Black Mayors Annual Meeting ’Coup.’”

In a deposition of Johnson from December 2013 obtained by SN&R, an attorney representing Williams and NCBM asked Sacramento’s mayor if the “coup” slide came from his office. His response:

“Yeah. I don’t know who produced it, but yes.”

Also, a May 6, 2013 email from Johnson’s director of governmental affairs, Stephanie Mash, sent to Stand Up volunteers Aisha Lowe, Mariah Sheriff and others—with the subject “NCBM documents for meeting”—states that Mash was attaching “strategy slides,” implying that she might be the author of the “coup” document.

Mash continued the mayor’s NCBM takeover effort by working to recruit legal counsel before his election to president. On May 20, 2013, she sent a letter to Mary Merchant, a partner at Ballard Spahr, titled “Request for pro bono legal services.” This request was sent nine days before the NCBM meeting in Atlanta.

Documents sent by Mash to Ballard Spahr, and obtained by SN&R, show that Team K.J. and his attorneys were preparing to terminate Williams long before the May vote. “[Mash was] telling the Ballard Spahr law firm that he’s about to become president of NCBM [and] one of the things that she lists was to terminate me,” Williams said of these documents. “She said that it was crucial to their plan, that the executive director be terminated, and that the law firm find a way to do this.

“And this is [Sacramento] city staff doing this.”

Johnson was eventually elected president of NCBM that month. Afterward, he forced the group to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April 2014. He later formed his own black mayors group, the African American Mayors Association—and hired Mash as its executive director.

The NCBM board members, however, are challenging the bankruptcy move in court. A judge may rule on this later in the summer.

Until then, NCBM remains in bankruptcy proceedings. The NCBM trustee, Edwin K. Palmer, filed a motion last week, on March 24, to sell the NCBM’s assets to none other than the AAMA.

In an interesting twist, Johnson’s pro bono attorneys at Ballard Spahr are representing both the NCBM and the AAMA in these proceedings. In December of last year, Mayor Gary Richardson, a NCBM board member, filed a motion with the state of Georgia’s Office of the General Counsel, asking that it investigate Ballard Spahr on the grounds that it is a conflict of interest to represent both groups.

Meanwhile, attorney Muhammad is leading a challenge to the validity of the bankruptcy effort. He contends, for instance, that “at least one signature was forged on the bankruptcy.” His depositions of Team K.J. will continue through June, he says, and he anticipates a court ruling later this summer.

Muhammad also questions whether Johnson was in fact in good standing as president when he led NCBM into bankruptcy. He says that, in 2013, mayors called a meeting and dismissed Johnson as president before he filed NCBM for Chapter 7—and he says this vote was legal under the group’s bylaws. “It could nullify everything,” including the bankruptcy case, he said. “Ballard Spahr would have no legs to stand on to serve NCBM everywhere.”

A judge was scheduled to hear this argument this past Wednesday, March 30.

Ethical problems

The 14 mayors who are threatening to sue the city of Sacramento and Johnson claim that the mayor and city employees defamed them individually and also cost NCBM revenue by interfering with contracts.

The mayors say that Johnson and his team executed a public-relations campaign in 2013 to disparage the group. “These actions were a part of a scheme devised by Mayor Kevin Johnson, his staff and volunteers, and the law firm of Ballard Spahr to oust NCBM’s executive director, Vanessa Williams. Mayor Kevin Johnson’s ultimate goal was to liquidate NCBM, a 40-year-old institution, and to start his new organization now known as the African American Mayors Association,” the claim reads.

It’s true that, by August 2013, the Team K.J. effort to discredit Williams was in full effect. In an email obtained by SN&R from August 26, Johnson sent a link of a Fox 5 Atlanta story on Williams to Shantel Gilbert and Heather Head. Later in the email thread, he wrote “we r almost there .., need to cross the finish line asap.”

The 14 mayors also claim that Johnson and his soldiers “participated in an elaborate plan devised to keep [the mayors] away from purported board meetings, and to remove access to both tangible and intangible property of the organization.” Specifically, they cite an effort by the mayor’s office to prevent NCBM from forging a contract with the city of Hamilton, Bermuda.

Muhammad suggested to SN&R that all this might just be the beginning of a protracted legal battle for Johnson and Co.

“I think there are some more serious ethical problems that he’ll at least be investigated on,” he hinted.