What resurgent molestation allegations mean for Kevin Johnson’s political future
Deadspin hounds K.J., sexual-assault allegations re-emerge, ESPN dumps Johnson's national-spotlight moment
If Kevin Johnson was bummed, he sure didn’t let on this past Monday night at the Crest Theatre. SN&R wasn’t invited to the premiere of his ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, Down in the Valley, but by all accounts the mayor was in full-on fête mode: high-fiving fans, posing for pictures, smiling. Which was odd, because just hours earlier, K.J. received some of the worst news of his political career: ESPN was canceling his big movie because of resurgent sexual-molestation allegations.
ESPN didn’t soften the blow: “I think the most important thing here is to make sure it’s clear that we are not tone deaf and we’re aware of a renewed focus on certain issues,” is how ESPN vice president John Dahl explained to Sports Illustrated the reasoning for shelving the film.
By “certain issues,” the ESPN boss means sex crimes allegedly committed by the mayor while an NBA player in Phoenix during the ’90s. Dave McKenna, a former weekly-paper scribe in Washington, D.C., and now staff reporter for Deadspin, has hounded Johnson for years, covering everything from the mayor’s repeated sexual-misconduct accusations to his forays into education reform to his lawsuit with this paper.
But last month, McKenna published an interview with K.J. accuser Amanda “Mandi” Koba. Now 35 and living in Virginia, this was the first time Koba had ever spoken to media about Johnson, who she claims molested her during the ages of 15 and 16, when she was just a 95-pound high-school girl in Phoenix.
Both Deadspin and The Sacramento Bee have reported in the past that Johnson paid Koba $230,000 to keep quiet. But 19 years later, Koba told McKenna that, after years of subsequent allegations against K.J., she couldn’t stay silent. “I just felt like I wasn’t doing anything but protecting him,” Koba told Deadspin.
Accusations against Johnson grabbed even more media attention last Thursday, when Deadspin published police video of a teenaged Koba describing K.J.’s sexual abuse. A transcript of this interview with police already existed, but seeing the actual video proved unsettling: At its conclusion, the detective interviewing Koba tells her that he thinks Johnson “is probably taking advantage of other young people.”
At Monday’s movie premiere, which could be the final time the ESPN film screens for the public, the mayor dismissed Koba’s claims. “There’s no there, there,” he told media outside the theater before the screening.
After decades of accusations, however, there is at least something.‘I’ve been afraid to speak’
Mandi Koba was 15 years old in 1995 when she met Kevin Johnson, who was then 29 and one of the biggest stars in the NBA. A year later, in a Phoenix police report, she’d describe their relationship as anything but appropriate: She says Johnson fondled her breasts and vagina, showered with her, rubbed his penis on her body and, according to Deadspin, he then suggested they “pray together and ask for forgiveness” and that she “pinky promise” not to tell anyone.
Johnson allegedly paid her to never talk about the alleged incident again. But this summer, Koba started blogging on her website, www.mandikoba.com, about her experience 19 years ago.
“I am every victim of sexual assault by a celebrity, a professional athlete, a politician that has been silenced. I’ve been afraid to speak, come forward and tell my story,” the now mother of three wrote. “But no more. It’s time.”
Her June 7, 2015, entry is confessional: “I’ve lain in silence, accepting the unwanted touch of a grown man I trusted, believed in, thought believed in me. An adult mentoring me, grooming me, promising me the world if I would just trust, trust in him. I learned to leave my body, not feel the sensation of touch, not notice the passage of time, my brain protecting me from the trauma.”
Koba finally spoke this summer to Deadspin, who published her interview on September 25. “Part of the way they got me to go along with the agreement was they told me it would protect me from his attorneys saying mean things about me,” Koba told McKenna about K.J. paying her off to keep quiet. “Well, I’m a grown-up now. They can say mean things about me if they want.”
The Deadspin feature lays out everything, from how Johnson and Koba met during a commercial shoot, to how her mother told K.J. that she couldn’t be her daughter’s boyfriend, to how Johnson gave Koba the nickname “Whiskey.” “And when he hasn’t seen [me] in a while or talked to me,” Koba told police in 1996, “he’d leave a message telling me that he needed a shot of whiskey.”
McKenna also resurfaced disturbing allegations against Johnson stemming from their relationship. About how the mayor allegedly took young Koba to many of his properties, where he would molest her. Deadspin also cited the ’96 police report, which SN&R has reported on in the past:
“At [Johnson’s] home on Camelback Mountain, Amanda said she and Kevin were watching television on a big circular couch. Kevin began acting as if he were looking for a quarter and ended up on top of her. She said the two went to the guest house portion of Kevin’s home where he then fondled her breasts and vagina. Kevin did this while the two were naked, lying on the bed. The only clothing Amanda recalled having on was possibly her socks.
“Later the two would shower together as Kevin lathered soap on his body and hers. The only thing said between the two, according to Amanda, was Kevin telling her not to talk. It should be noted that while on the bed with Kevin, Amanda said she felt his penis with her hand as it brushed up against it and as it was against her leg.”
Other incidents followed, according to the report, but charges were never filed, and Johnson denied any wrongdoing.
On Monday night, the mayor told a pool of reporters that “this is a story that’s been investigated time and time again. It goes back 20 years. That’s been a reality. It’s unfortunate that stories like this continue to come forward.”
It’s a he said/she said case—except for one phone call, which this paper has reported in the past: a discussion between Koba and Johnson recorded by Phoenix police. It suggests that something was there:
“Well, I was naked and you were naked, and it wasn’t a hug,” Koba told Johnson.
“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 …” he replied.
Koba: “… Why would I be upset if it was just a hug?”
Johnson: “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. And you did feel bad the next day and that’s why we talked about it.”
Koba: “Well, if it was just a hug, why were either one of us naked?”
Johnson: “Again, I didn’t recall us being a 100 percent naked.”Johnson’s next move?
Deadspin’s Koba feature clearly was damaging to Johnson, but it was last week’s video of Koba’s police interview that likely prompted ESPN to dump the mayor’s movie. The rumor is that, if ESPN aired the Johnson-aggrandizing Down in the Valley on Tuesday, Deadspin would be relentless in its attacks on the sports-media goliath.
ESPN says it’s going to “revisit” the film. Its director, however, did not visit Sacramento for the premiere. SN&R was told by a reliable source that ESPN told him not to come to town, but the director denied this. Sources also told SN&R and other outlets that Sacramento Kings brass, including Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, was urged not to attend Monday’s Valley premiere.
Sex-abuse and harassment claims have followed the mayor since Phoenix, from reports of sexual impropriety with a student in 2007 while at St. HOPE and Sacramento High, to this year’s allegations that he sexually assaulted a city employee.
That employee, Estrellita Ilee Muller, filed a claim in April saying that Johnson called her to the mayoral library, where he allegedly pushed up against her body while rubbing her, attempted to kiss and then asked her if she “felt it.” Johnson held a press conference in May denying the claim, and city council voted not to investigate.
Now, months later and on the heels of the Deadspin video release and ESPN’s yanking of his flick, Johnson finds himself at a crossroads:
Does he run again for mayor, which if he won would make him the first three-term mayor in Sacramento history?
Or does he step aside, raise funds and polish his image for a run at an office like lieutenant governor?
Sources tell SN&R mixed messages. Some say that, after Johnson’s “strong mayor” defeat, he will bow out of City Hall after next year’s Kings arena opening and leave on a high note. To run for lieutenant governor, he’ll need to announce early, soon after departing the mayor’s office, anyway. Johnson recently also hired a former Capitol staffer, in theory to bump the profile of his K.J. brand for a statewide campaign. But others argue that, if he leaves City Hall now, it’ll appear as if he was run out of Sacramento.
And that would be very un-K.J.