Mayor Kevin Johnson isn’t running for re-election, but he continues to raise more money than any Sacramento politician or candidate
K.J. took in at least $1.3 million in behest donations since sexual-misconduct allegations resurfaced last fall
Kevin Johnson isn’t running for re-election next week. Yet most Sacramentans might be surprised to learn that the outgoing mayor has raked in more money this campaign season than any Sacramento politician or candidate—even mayoral front-runner Darrell Steinberg.
K.J.’s taken in these donations despite the video of a teenaged girl accusing him of molestation. The video was filmed in Phoenix in 1996 but only surfaced in October of last year. It drew national coverage, and the mayor announced he would not seek a third term after its release.
Some might assume such a video and accusations would have donors thinking twice about giving. But it’s been big business as usual for Johnson.
In fact, the mayor has brought in more than $1 million in “behested” donations to his private organizations and nonprofits since national sports website Deadspin made the video public.
How does Johnson continue to rake in millions of dollars? Why do regional powerhouses such as UC Davis, Golden 1 Credit Union and Sutter Health—and also private citizens such as Sacramento Republic co-owner Kevin Nagle and Democratic Party benefactor Angelo Tsakopoulos—keep giving to the K.J. brand?
The donations come in the form of behests. A behest is when a group or person donates money to an elected official’s private organization or nonprofit. Unlike campaign donations, behested money is given in unlimited amounts. It’s also difficult to track how organizations spend this money.
Jessica Levinson, an elections law and government expert at Loyola Law School, explained that even though these behests are a “loophole” around campaign contributions, “that doesn’t mean nothing good comes of it.” Behests benefit nonprofits and causes important to the city, she said. But they also benefit a politician’s personal interests.
“And I think Kevin Johnson is definitely quite adept at” using behests to bring in money, she added.
The mayor’s network boasts a handful of private groups or 501(c)(3) nonprofits, which have taken in millions of dollars during his time in office, according to city of Sacramento records and filings. The money allows Johnson to pay for additional employees, often noncity staff who do their work inside City Hall and who portray themselves to outsiders as actual city workers. The mayor says this helps him do more good in Sacramento. Some critics refer to this as a parallel government that is only about advancing Johnson’s interests.
These behested donations are unprecedented in City Hall politics and fueled a fundraising machine that will give Johnson significant influence in the region for years to come, long after he’s left the mayor’s office.
Since the video containing the Phoenix allegations surfaced, for instance, Johnson—who said it was not a factor in his decision to not run for re-election—still raised nearly $1.3 million with behests, according to city filings from this past April. By comparison, candidate Steinberg raised less than $400,000 in new money during this same time frame for his campaign.
In the first four months of 2016, Johnson brought in more behested donations than he did during the same period last year. Between January 1 and April 7, he amassed $658,000, according to filings with the city of Sacramento. During that same period in 2015, he raised $637,500.
It’s worth noting that this is unlikely a complete picture of the mayor’s total fundraising intake. Johnson has a track record of bad transparency when it comes to behests, and the city does not enforce disclosure. That’s up to the Fair Political Practices Commission, which in 2012 tagged the mayor with a $37,500 fine for failing to report more than $3.5 million in behests, the largest penalty in state history.
Yet the money keeps coming in: In 2015, Johnson’s network pocketed more than $2.4 million, according to the city.
The mayor formed this web of private groups that can raise unlimited money in 2010. He did this in part because the former city attorney, Eileen Teichert, put up roadblocks to Johnson’s cadre of volunteers, advisers and interns from freely coming and going at City Hall, but mostly to bring in millions of dollars to his personal brand and causes. (Read more about this parallel government’s players and money in “K.J. Inc.,” SN&R Feature Story, August 16, 2012.)
The Sacramento Public Policy Foundation is the umbrella group for this money machine. It’s headed by Fred Hiestand, the mayor’s longstanding attorney. SPPF has brought in more than $2.5 million since 2010.
Nagle, a partner with the Sacramento Republic FC soccer team and a corporate pharmaceutical mogul, has been one of Johnson’s top donors over the years. In less than four months this year, he gave $95,000 to SPPF, and $195,000 overall to Johnson’s various private groups, including the St. Hope charter-school organization. Since 2010, Nagle has given more than $1.25 million in tax-deductible donations to Johnson.
Nagle, who is also the largest local shareholder of the Kings, declined to discuss his donations to the mayor.
Some criticize behests as a way for donors to curry favor with politicians by making unlimited donations that are tax-deductible. “There’s a fear … that it’s another way to gain influence, and in certain ways circumvent the contribution limits,” Nicolas Heidorn, a policy and legislative counsel for government watchdog group California Common Cause, said of these type of behested contributions.
Heidorn said that behests are a “new frontier” in political donations. Levinson observed that there “does seem like there’s an uptick” in behest donations statewide, and said that it’s important to ask “what [a donor has] to gain from gaining access to Kevin Johnson.”
SPPF states that its mission is to undertake philanthropic activities that benefit Sacramento, educate the public and craft policy. This includes work done by Think Big Sacramento, which was the steering organization to keep the Kings in town and also secure public investment in the new downtown arena.
But filings by SPPF and other Johnson nonprofits do not disclose how a majority of the behested money is spent, or who even made the donations. In 2014, for instance, a Form 990 statement reports that SPPF took in more than a half-million dollars from unnamed groups and individuals, and made more than $330,000 in expenditures—but $212,000 of that is listed simply as unaccounted-for “general expenses.”
Stand Up is another one of Johnson’s private groups, this one focusing on influencing Sacramento-area education policy. Since 2010, the nonprofit has raised more than $6 million in behests, from marquee charter-school donors such as the Walton Family, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Emerson Collective and other corporations. Stand Up says its mission is “to ensure that every child in Sacramento has an opportunity to attend an excellent public school.”
But it’s unclear what a lot of Stand Up’s work has to do with education, let alone local public schools. In 2013, for instance, Stand Up Executive Director Stephanie Mash received a $120,313 salary. But email records obtained by SN&R show that she presented herself to others as the mayor’s “interim director of African-American affairs.”
Mash also was a point person in Johnson’s effort to ascend as president of the Atlanta-based National Conference of Black Mayors in 2013. Mash worked on that effort for nearly two years, and eventually left Stand Up and to become executive director of the African American Mayors Association, a competing group to NCBM that Johnson launched amid controversy in 2014. Under her leadership, AAMA has taken in millions of dollars at the behest of the mayor—from the likes of Uber, Wal-Mart, Comcast, AT&T, Coca-Cola, PetSmart and more.
Stand Up brought in more than $1.2 million in 2013, more than $850,000 of which was spent on salaries, travel and undisclosed items, based on federal filings.
This secrecy as to where the money goes persists. This year alone, Johnson has taken in behested donations from myriad sources—including Bank of America ($23,000), Nagle ($100,000), arena developer Mark Friedman’s company ($25,000), Buzz Oates Foundation ($25,000), Downtown Railyard Venture LLC ($5,000) and more—to St. Hope Academy, his charter-school nonprofit. But did that money go to schools, or did it pay for his birthday party?
In early March, Johnson attended a 50th birthday bash at the downtown railyards. Hundreds were invited to the hush-hush, high-security gathering, and revelers enjoyed food prepared by local chefs and danced to R&B troupe Tony! Toni! Toné! The party also doubled as a fundraiser for St. Hope, and vendors that spoke to SN&R on background said they were paid by St. Hope. SN&R emailed St. Hope twice to discuss the birthday fundraiser, but the group was not responsive.
The mayor’s most recent behest fundraising again invites criticism that the money is less about helping the city, and more about advancing K.J.’s brand and family businesses.
Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, who served on city council with the mayor, said it’s probably time to revisit statewide laws on behests. “I think Johnson raises legitimate questions whether the rules ought to be strengthened, as far as transparency and oversight,” he told SN&R. “I hope the next mayor of Sacramento ditches this practice and focuses more on quantifiable city interests, on city business.”
The city manager’s office has repeatedly declined in the past to discuss the city’s policy on behests, as have mayoral candidates Steinberg and Angelique Ashby.
In the meantime, the money keeps rolling in.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the name of Mayor Kevin Johnson’s former Stand Up and current African American Mayors Association executive director, Stephanie Mash. It’s now been updated with the correct information.