K.J.’s just-released emails show alternate city government reality

New documents reveal how the mayor used city staff for political maneuvering and attempted power plays

Photo caption

Photo caption


In July of 2013, Kevin Johnson had just prevented the Sacramento Kings from moving to Seattle. His days were busy shilling influential locals to buy season tickets, and maneuvering to prevent signature gatherers from putting an arena-subsidy referendum on the ballot. But, on July 26 of that year, the mayor—who often likens himself as Sacramento’s CEO—also found time to fly to Atlanta and play human-resources director and personally conduct an exit interview of a low-level worker with the National Conference of Black Mayors.

It’s true: New emails acquired by SN&R last week, as part of its recent legal victory against the mayor, reveal the lengths to which Johnson and his staff went to mop up blowback from his takeover at NCBM.

The more-than 70 emails and documents, which the mayor worked to keep secret for more than a year, don’t appear to contain any incriminating criminal evidence or “smoking guns” regarding Johnson or his ascension at the mayors group. But they do reaffirm a contentious, costly and time-consuming conquest of the Georgia-based nonprofit.

Perhaps more importantly, these Johnson communications also show how the mayor uses public city staff and his private employees to advance his political ambitions.

“Having a second, or alternate, bureaucracy that’s outside the government system … I think that’s unusual,” is how Peter Scheer, with the Northern California-based First Amendment Coalition, described Johnson’s administration at City Hall.

And they also function as a template for how a 21st century politician can use private email, such as Gmail, to skirt transparency, a case study that First Amendment and freedom-of-information experts refer to as a new frontier for elected leaders in California.

Scheer argued that Johnson’s use of private emails should be a concern.

“I think that’s inappropriate,” he said of his widespread use of Gmail accounts to avoid scrutiny from colleagues and the public. “Just ask Hillary Clinton.”

These latest Johnson emails, which a Sacramento Superior Court judge ordered the mayor to turn over to SN&R on July 18, focus on a time frame beginning in June 2013, just weeks after Johnson’s controversial election as president of NCBM.

During this period, the mayor’s team—lead by employees and volunteers with his Sacramento-based Stand Up education nonprofit—hustled to assure NCBM board members that Johnson would restore the credibility of the group. They also worked with legal firm Ballard Spahr to audit NCBM and get its finances in order.

Johnson himself and staff also hoped to terminate then-executive director Vanessa Williams, whom they accused of poorly managing the group and misspending hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds.

At this same time, a faction at NCBM—including Williams and Mayor Robert Bowser of East Orange, N.J., who oversaw the vote for Johnson as president—was already arguing that Johnson rigged a May 30 vote that made him president, and that his election was illegal. This matter eventually went in front of a judge with the Superior Court of Fulton County during the summer of 2013.

In the emails, Johnson himself urges staff to squash bad publicity about his rise to president of NCBM. For instance, the mayor was concerned with an opinion piece published by the Atlanta Daily World, authored by George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. The story attempted to make the case that, when Johnson took over as NCBM president, the vote was invalid because it violated several of the group’s bylaws.

Johnson emailed staff in July 2013 in response to Curry’s story: “[W]e need to refute this asap … we cannot let this stand,” he wrote. The mayor was sensitive that negative press in Atlanta would impact his agenda at NCBM. Specifically, he wanted to remove Williams as executive director and also complete a top-to-bottom audit NCBM finances, and he might not be able to achieve these goals if his presidency was called into question.

“[C]redibility is being chipped away,” his email read.

The emails and documents obtained by SN&R also show that a significant amount of work on NCBM issues was performed by city of Sacramento staff. For example, several documents illustrate how former city staffer and mayoral aide Cassandra Jennings spent countless hours performing outreach to mayors across the country, and that she was assigned to contact at least a dozen NCMB board members so as to shore up support for Johnson’s presidency, among other tasks.

The emails also reveal how workers with Stand Up, which is supposed to focus on Sacramento-based public-education issues, devoted many hours working on the NCBM project. One record even detailed how Stand Up Executive Director Stephanie Mash flew to Atlanta in September 2013 to deal with NCBM fallout.

And, as noted earlier, Johnson himself traveled to Atlanta to conduct a basic human-resources interview with an NCMB staffer, Heather Head, the group’s former marketing and communications director. The type of hard-hitting questions Johnson asked while leading this July 26, 2013, interview?

“How long did you work there?”

“Who did you report to?”

“Why did you leave?”

The fate of NCBM is currently tied up in two legal dramas: the original court case, which has yet to be resolved going on three years; and a separate case, where NCBM-in-exile leaders are challenging Johnson’s bankruptcy move.

Previous records obtained by SN&R suggest it was always Johnson’s plan to overhaul NCBM leadership and use the group to both grow his national reputation and also amplify his political brand.

As early as the spring of 2013, weeks before the vote that made him president of NCBM, records show that someone on Johnson’s team produced a PowerPoint slide featuring the city of Sacramento seal and the headline “National Conference of Black Mayors Annual Meeting ’Coup.’”

SN&R obtained a deposition from Johnson, conducted in December 2013 by Williams’ lawyer, where the mayor admitted that his office was responsible for the “coup” PowerPoint.

“Yeah,” Johnson said, according to the court record. “I don’t know who produced it, but yes,” it came from his office.

Although Johnson had hoped to re-establish NCBM’s 40-year tradition as a leading national mayors group, he ultimately failed. And, in April 2014, he forced NCBM into Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Then, suddenly, in May of that year, Johnson founded the African-American Mayor’s Association, a competing organization to be led by former Stand Up head Mash. With Johnson as president, AAMA has raked in millions of dollars in donations at the behest of the mayor, including those from corporations such as Wal-Mart, Comcast and Uber. Stand Up, the nonprofit that Johnson founded in 2009, has taken in more than $6 million in donations over the past six years, including major contributions from the Walton family.

Stand Up workers coordinated with city of Sacramento employees on NCBM issues via a special Google account, titled “OMKJNCBM,” for “Office of Mayor Kevin Johnson.” City staffers used these Gmail accounts in lieu of CityofSacramento.org addresses.

Regulations pertaining to email use by government officials is in legal limbo. On one hand, a federal appeals court recently ruled that politicians and government workers must produce all emails that deal with government work, even if the emails are on an official’s private email account. But, here in California, the state supreme court has yet to rule on a case involving the city of San Jose about public records and private email and devices.

Meanwhile, Scheer with the First Amendment Coalition says he’s seeing more elected leaders move to private email to do public work. “I think now it’s really caught on,” he explained.

“It’s a very convenient, inexpensive and simple way to avoid having your emails and government business subject to public scrutiny.”

Convenient—and, for some, expensive.

When Johnson sued SN&R last year, he also named his own city in the legal injunction. This means that, for more than the past 12 months, city of Sacramento staff attorneys have put in many hours on the case.

How much did that cost?

Who knows: The city didn’t keep track.

City spokesperson Linda Tucker told SN&R that the legal time spent on the K.J.-SN&R case involving secret National Conference of Black Mayors emails was not tracked. “There are no invoices,” she wrote in an email.

The catch is that there is precedent for the city disclosing costs when it comes to legal work, most notably the Kings arena lawsuit, which a judge ruled on last year. Given this fact, one might find it difficult to believe that City Hall doesn’t know the person hours spent on a specific job, or that they don’t track the metrics.

Tucker did say that the city does in fact occasionally track hours. For instance, during said arena suit, the city set up a code on time sheets, which they would use to log hours spent on a particular subject or case. “[B]ut not every subject matter/project is coded unless it’s reimbursable,” she wrote.

Will the city seek reimbursement of legal expenses from the mayor? Sacramento was a co-respondent in the K.J.-SN&R lawsuit, and this paper estimates nearly $100,000 in legal costs during the First Amendment fight.

“I don’t believe so,” Tucker wrote in response.