K.J.’s shadow coup
Former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson left office with a huge political victory—so why haven’t you heard about it?
Kevin Johnson wasn’t used to watching the big game pass him by from the bench. But with Darrell Steinberg standing in the wings to be sworn in as Johnson’s replacement, the suddenly lame-duck mayor ended his arena-building, shadow-government-installing, two-term run in quiet fashion on December 13.
Calling to order a special council session by playfully banging his gavel so hard the city clerk chuckled out a warning, Johnson appeared loose and cheerful last Tuesday night. He accepted two final tributes, both protected against misuse—an honorary badge wedged in cut glass and a fire helmet in the Kings’ purple and black—and endured one last free-form-jazz lecture from perennial council attendee Mac Worthy (which K.J. greeted with a “Perfect”). And then it was all but over, with Johnson offering one final message before calling it a political career in his prodigal town:
“Last council meeting. Sacramento, I want to say thank you for all the unbelievable support. All city staff, you guys rock. To my colleagues on the council, you are the best. I am just a phone call away if I can ever be helpful. God bless you, love you.”
Humble. Gracious. And making zero mention of the huge political victory Johnson scored hours earlier.
On that very same day, several states over, a federal bankruptcy court in Georgia removed the final hurdle blocking Johnson’s multiyear campaign to dismantle the historic—and historically troubled—National Conference of Black Mayors and replace it with a version more to his liking.
The attorney for the losing side confirmed to SN&R that the ruling spelled the end of an epic legal tussle for the soul of a national political alliance steeped in civil rights lore and badly mismanaged into a vulnerable financial state, ripe for the overtaking. And it began like so many K.J. stories do—with Johnson trying to expand his political reach beyond Sacramento.
“It all started because Kevin Johnson and some of the people with him wanted to take over the organization,” said Kenneth Muhammad, a Georgia attorney who presided over the last gasps of the historic NCBM. “And the plan ended up working because the people who were fighting it ended up running out of money.”
That self-described “coup” that Team K.J. had drawn up more than three years ago, using city staff and resources to advance a noncity power grab? Yeah, it worked.
So why haven’t you a heard a peep about it?
The attempt to forestall bankruptcy and save the NCBM was mounted on the grounds that Johnson got himself fraudulently elected president in 2013—a claim a judge later rejected—only to tank the struggling nonprofit so he could replace it with a version under his control and sharing his corporate education goals.
The ruling comes about two months after a separate judgment in an Atlanta circuit court against Vanessa Williams, NCBM’s former executive director and Johnson’s chief adversary in trying to keep the black mayors conference alive.
In both cases, the rulings were based less on the merits of Team K.J.’s legal arguments and more on the fact that the other side simply stopped fighting.
In his 19-page order issued last week, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Paul Baisier ruled that the effort to stop the liquidation from going forward was “moot,” as the bankruptcy trustee had already sold NCBM’s assets and naming rights for $65,000 to the African American Mayors Association, the competing organization that Johnson founded in May 2014.
The law firm representing Team K.J., the bankruptcy trustee and AAMA, all free of charge?
Ballard Spahr LLP.
Williams, who learned of the bankruptcy ruling from SN&R on Tuesday, claimed Ballard Spahr’s representation of the party that wanted the bankruptcy, the trustee responsible for overseeing it and the organization that stood to replace the NCBM constitued “a conflict of interest.”
A Ballard Spahr attorney disputed that there was a conflict, since her firm wasn’t receiving payment for its work.
Baisier also ruled that Williams and the 14 NCBM mayors trying to save the organization lacked standing to bring the case. In a footnote to his ruling, the judge noted that once a trustee is appointed, the board no longer has much power over what happens to the organization. Citing case law, Baisier wrote that “the powers of the debtor’s directors are severely limited,” there to provide information to the trustee and creditors, but otherwise “completely ousted.”
But attorneys for both parties acknowledge the ruling had less to do with the merits than inertia.
“We’ve heard nothing from opposing counsel for months, which is why the judge entered this order,” Ballard Spahr attorney Tobey Marie Daluz told SN&R. “If you read the opinion, although he made findings based on legal grounds, [the judge] also made it clear that these motions could have all been dismissed for the failure to prosecute them. We haven’t talked to the other side since this summer.”
There’s a reason for that, says Muhammad, the most recent attorney to represent Williams and the 14 black mayors. “One side had money to fight. The other side did not,” he said.
His was that other side.
Muhammad says he had stopped actively working on the bankruptcy case and another related lawsuit long before the rulings were handed down due to his clients’ inability to pay to keep them going. This was despite, he claims, having a killer case that would have exposed Johnson’s illegal machinations.
It wasn’t that long ago—this past spring, in fact—that Muhammad and his clients were rattling those sabers in Sacramento. Muhammad told SN&R then that he expected to file a defamation lawsuit against Johnson and the city for a coordinated smear campaign the former mayor allegedly perpetrated against the NCBM board and employees using city staff and resources, as well as volunteers from Johnson’s education nonprofit Stand Up.
But that lawsuit never materialized.
Muhammad recently admitted that he never officially filed a claim against the city, which would have been the precursor to a lawsuit, as Williams and the mayors couldn’t figure out who should pay the legal fees for it.
“We were in a position where, on both fronts, we had a 100 percent unshakable case,” he contended. “It all fell apart over attorney fees.”
Williams acknowledged the financial difficulty.
“Any time you have one side of the case being represented pro bono and the other side having to come out of their pocket, you have a great disparity,” Williams said. “At some point, the well begins to run dry.”
Before departing the fight, Muhammad laid out his case in a motion filed with the Superior Court of Fulton County, in Georgia, where he was defending Williams against Johnson’s allegations that she misappropriated funds as NCBM’s executive director.
The motion asserts that Johnson “prevented NCBM from collecting millions of dollars in conference fees and sponsorship donations” that could have dug it out of debt by the end of 2014 and that he scapegoated Williams for mismanaging the conference.
In the motion, Muhammad portrays Johnson as speaking out of two sides of his mouth during much of 2013—claiming publicly that he wanted to save the venerable conference while working behind the scenes to bring it toppling down so he could replace it with an entity that would push his charter schools agenda without interference from Williams and others opposed to the idea.
Muhammad formally withdrew himself from that case over the same payment issues that stalled the bankruptcy one.
About two months ago, the court issued a $630,000 judgment against Williams and her co-defendants in that case, Daluz said, for personal expenditures that were made from NCBM’s accounts while Williams was the executive director.
“We think the two [rulings] together should put this case to rest,” Daluz said.
Williams told SN&R that state court judgment was issued by default, after she and her fellow respondents missed a court date they hadn’t been notified of. She says her new attorney has already filed a motion to vacate the ruling, but Daluz said the period for an appeal has passed.
SN&R was unable to confirm that. A representative of the Fulton County court didn’t respond to a request for information prior to deadline.
Meanwhile, electronic communications—obtained by SN&R following a yearlong public records legal battle with Johnson—illustrate to what lengths the former mayor was willing to use city resources to expand his influence far beyond Sacramento.
According to the documents, Team K.J. began executing a plan to oust Williams and overtake the NCBM at least as far back as February 2013, seven months before he became president.
For instance, it was then-K.J. staffer Aisha Lowe who drafted Williams’ termination letter for her boss, cheekily suggesting the subject line, “Why don’t you just leave already?” Copied on the August 2013 email were other Johnson staffers Mariah Sheriff, Stephanie Mash and Cassandra Jennings, among others.
And one electronic document, entitled “Straight Talk,” lists Johnson’s talking points shortly after he became president of the NCBM during a highly contested board meeting in September 2013. Point one goes like this: “I came into this organization because I believe in the vision of the organization. I still believe that this organization will be the greatest and most influential African American organization in the United States.”
In April 2014, Johnson led the NCBM into bankruptcy. A month after that, he founded the AAMA, appointing Mash its executive director.
Daluz says the media has heaped too much of the credit for NCBM’s demise on Johnson, forgetting that other mayors voted with him to dismantle the organization after nearly a year of trying to hold it together.
“Yes, calling anything a ’coup’ is an unfortunate use of terminology and not one that I think directed the strategy in any meaningful way,” Daluz added. “People can say he planned this, but all the facts were already on the table. This company was crippled by debt.”
It’s true that the NCBM takeover didn’t take place in a vacuum. Five years ago, the nonprofit organization, founded in either 1974 or 1976, according to different court documents, was attempting to claw its way out of an ignominious period in which the U.S. government indicted three of its mayors on corruption charges and an FBI investigation revealed Williams was using the organization’s credit card on personal expenses—something she and her defenders maintain she was allowed to do in lieu of taking a salary. According to Braisier’s bankruptcy ruling, NCBM owed 11 creditors approximately $1.4 million by March of this year, though most of that was due to the IRS.
Ben Sosenko, Johnson’s former press secretary, says his boss hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for taking a flailing nonprofit and replacing it with a self-sustaining organization that regularly has dealings with the White House.
Sosenko, now working at a PR firm on the East Coast, equated the creation of the AAMA to keeping the Kings in Sacramento.
“I think it’s one of his greatest accomplishments,” he told SN&R.
Mash declined an interview with SN&R, and instead sent a press release crediting Johnson and Ballard Spahr for their work, and announcing that the AAMA now holds “the exclusive rights to the unified history of the NCBM and the AAMA.”
Johnson is still listed as a member of the AAMA, which also counts the American Federation for Children on its associate business council. The federation is a big supporter of charter schools, and has written talking points in support of President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
The NCBM standoff with Johnson has exacted a toll on Williams, who struggled to contain her emotions during the course of a nearly one-hour phone interview.
“I went from someone highly respected, highly regarded to, you Google me and I’m depicted as a thief, a liar who would betray the one thing outside of my family and my God that I love,” she said. “I would never have betrayed that organization.”
Williams stressed that her group, operating under the name Conference of Black Mayors, would appeal judgments in both circuit and bankruptcy courts—with the help of new legal representation and a developing legal fund.
“I think it’s imperative that the truth be told about what actually happened,” she said.
Muhammad says she has a formidable case, and expressed disappointment that he wasn’t able to carry it further.
“They look vindicated when they’re not,” he said of Team K.J. “I know. They’re guilty as sin.”
Ballard Spahr’s Daluz wouldn’t look forward to the possibility of a rematch.
“Honestly, I’ve never been in a case like this before and hope [I] never have to again,” she said.
The attorney also offered condolences for the NCBM, which she said could have gone down an alternative path not ending in its liquidation.
“This is an unfortunate result for a long-standing organization,” she told SN&R. “Certainly, there were probably two schools of thought here about the direction that this organization should have gone in, or two camps. And perhaps there was a contingent of mayors who would have elected an option other than pursuit of Chapter 7 bankruptcy.”
That was the path not taken, and Johnson’s critics believe they know why.
Indeed, last week’s bankruptcy victory relied on a tried-and-true K.J. tactic—applying a shock-and-awe legal arsenal against anyone standing in his way, from girls and women accusing him of sexual misconduct to this newspaper, which recently prevailed in a costly public records lawsuit that Johnson filed to keep NCBM-related emails secret.
Nikki Moore, an attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, noted the parallels.
“It seems as though the SNR case is not out of character for our former mayor,” she wrote in an email. “He has exhibited willingness to use the legal system—which is expensive, slow, and rewards the heavy-pocketed—to accomplish goals: whether that’s gaining power or stifling speech.”
A Sacramento Superior Court judge recently ruled against SN&R’s motion to collect more than $100,000 in attorney fees from its victorious legal defense.
As for where Johnson heads next, that’s anyone’s guess.
Onetime campaign adviser Steven Maviglio thinks his old boss will stay away from the bright spotlight of political office.
“He was never interested in higher office,” Maviglio told SN&R via email. “He wanted to make good in the community he grew up in. I suspect he’ll continue down that track in the private sector, and continue in his real passion: education reform.”
As Steinberg lifted his palm to take the mayor’s oath inside the California State Railroad Museum last Tuesday night, Johnson got lost somewhere in the massive sea of well-wishers. At some point during the inauguration, he disappeared, pocketing one of the biggest victories of his polarizing political career.
Williams, for one, can’t let that go.
“He just goes away in the night to live his life while he destroyed everyone else’s,” she said. “I trusted him to help me with this organization.”