The conversation

Bites is about 20 minutes into an sit-down interview with mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson, when his campaign manager Erin Lehane tells us it’s almost time to wrap it up.

So far, it’s been a quick series of questions about pretty specific issues facing the city: the budget crisis, how to fund cops, how to handle development in the flood plain of Natomas. Johnson’s answers are upbeat, but brisk and general.

“You caught me in week one,” Kevin Johnson says, explaining many of his policy positions haven’t quite gelled yet.

Fair enough. We can drill down on the issues later. But one more question before Johnson was hustled off to his next appointment.

“Well, uh, so, I need to ask you,” Bites begins, then proceeds to stumble through a question that more or less amounts to, “What’s with the teenage girls?”

The Bee has just printed a story about allegations from a former Sac High teacher that Johnson had inappropriately touched a female student. The Bee had to write about it, after all, when the teacher put up a big banner outside his house reading, “No perverts for mayor.”

There was only a passing mention in the Bee of a similar allegation made against Johnson by a Phoenix teenager more than 10 years ago.

In 1997, the Phoenix New Times wrote of a young woman who alleged to police that Johnson, then 31, had spent time alone with her at his home, had showered with her and even fondled her. She was reportedly 16 at the time.

According to the story, the local police department investigated but found there was not a “reasonable likelihood of conviction,” and dropped the case.

The Phoenix reporter pointed out several red flags. The young woman had a history of emotional problems. Johnson submitted to and passed a polygraph test. And the young woman and her lawyer were trying to get Johnson to pay her $750,000.

It would be easier to blow the accusation off, if it weren’t for Kevin Johnson’s own words, secretly taped by Phoenix police investigators during an “ambush call” between the young woman and the NBA star, and recounted in the story.

“I miss you bad. I don’t like not being able to talk to you,” says Johnson early in the tape-recorded conversation.

Later, she tries to draw Johnson out, to get him to make some sort of confession. “Well, I was naked and you were naked, and it wasn’t a hug,” the woman reportedly says.

Now, this might have been a good time for Johnson to reply, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “I’m going to hang up now.”

Instead, according to the report, Johnson says, “Well, I felt that it was, you know, a hug, and you know, I didn’t, to be honest, remember if we were both naked at that time. That is the night at the guest house?”

Later Johnson reportedly says, “Well, I said the hug was more intimate than it should have been. … But I don’t believe I touched your private parts in those areas.”

Bites asked Johnson if the quotes in the Phoenix story were an accurate account of the conversation. He said that it was so long ago, he’d have to revisit the story to be sure. “What is accurate is that those allegations were not true.”

But they still leave the question, “What the hell were you thinking?” How do you get into a situation where you’re having that conversation, with that person, with the police listening in on the line?

Johnson’s handlers, then and now, have said that the conversation shows Johnson trying to gently handle a fragile and troubled young woman.

And the Johnson campaign has tried to cast these stories as part of a smear campaign by Fargo’s campaign manager Richie Ross. But Bites can’t recall Ross ever shopping anything to SN&R reporters. He’s not a fan, we’re told.

Bites called the young woman’s attorney, a man named Kent Turley, in Arizona. There was along pause, and then Turley said, “I’m not going to talk to you about that,” and hung up. Perhaps the story is an ugly and unpleasant memory for Mr. Turley, one he wants to put behind him. Kent Turley’s not running for mayor of Sacramento.