by Cosmo Garvin
Bites has been banging pots and pans for a while now about Mayor Kevin Johnson’s use of public resources to advance his many personal and political interests.
K.J.’s network of nonprofits slurp up millions from business interests. These “charitable behests” don’t go to charity; they go to promote Johnson’s political brand, they go to consultants and cronies. Johnson then promotes the policy interests of those big donors. And there’s practically no line dividing the mayor’s office and the private organizations.
The Sacramento media is pretty blasé about K.J. Inc. But not D.C.-based reporter Dave McKenna, who writes for the Gawker site Deadpsin. Read his recent stories, “How Kevin Johnson used public money to his own personal ends,” and “How Kevin Johnson Destroyed Black Mayors Group to Promote His Brand.”
The themes are pretty familiar, but McKenna fills in some important blanks about what our wandering mayor is up to when he’s out there “raising Sacramento’s profile.”
Like using city staff to screw around in the internal politics of the National Basketball Players Association. And having public employees help wage his power struggle for control of the National Conference of Black Mayors.
In 2014, Johnson wanted to be a player in picking a new head for the National Basketball Players Association. He was ultimately rebuffed, but McKenna writes, “The labor for this project came right off the Sacramento municipal payroll,” and included chief of staff Daniel Conway and spokesperson Ben Sosenko.
Bites contacted the mayor’s office for a response; none came. But, as McKenna notes, it’s not like the mayor’s staff hides their involvement in Johnson’s outside projects. Mayoral aide Andre Breaux says on his LinkedIn profile that he “managed project tasks for the Mayor’s role as Chairman of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) Executive Director Search Committee.”
The story of Johnson and the Conference of Black Mayors is longer and way more bizarre. K.J. is being sued by former NCBM executive director Vanessa Williams for defamation.
By all accounts, the organization was a mess, financially mismanaged and deeply in debt when Johnson got himself elected NCBM president in 2013. But some mayors resented Johnson’s tactics and attempt to seize control. For example, a PowerPoint presentation was distributed to the mayor’s City Hall staff, in Sacramento, about the NCBM takeover titled “Annual Meeting ‘Coup.’”
McKenna’s writes, “Court records now show that folks on the Sacramento payroll also did Johnson’s private bidding during every phase of that bizarre, megalomaniacal campaign.”
Indeed, those court documents show Sacramento city employees coordinated strategy for taking over NCBM, using Johnson’s network of quasi-public “OMKJ” Gmail accounts. (See my recent column on Johnson’s email charade: http://tinyurl.com/MayorKJemail.)
One of the main coup participants was Mariah Sheriff, Johnson’s director of government affairs and education, now deputy chief of staff. Another was Stephanie Mash, another of mayor’s directors of governmental affairs.
Johnson eventually grew frustrated with the NCBM fight and resigned. He immediately started a new nonprofit, called the African American Mayors Association, and installed Mash as executive director and himself as president. Johnson has since used AAMA to solicit big contributions from folks like Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Uber, and then push policies favorable to the donors. (Read my column on this from last year: http://tinyurl.com/MayorKJUber.)
Also on the NCBM coup team was Aisha Lowe, who was executive director of Johnson’s education reform advocacy group “Stand Up.” When Mash left, Lowe took Mash’s job in the mayor’s office, simultaneously holding positions in City Hall and at Stand Up.
Three years ago, City Manager John Shirey said of Johnson’s various extra-curricular activities, “The people who are here need to be engaged in city work,” and he showed Johnson’s nonprofits the door. (Read more about this here: http://tinyurl.com/KJ-Shirey.)
Apparently it was a revolving door. When Bites contacted the City Manager’s office and the City Attorney’s office last week to ask, “Is it OK to use city employees in this way?” neither responded.
Jessica Levinson, professor of election law at Loyola Law School, says Johnson’s use of city employees “is blurring lines, for sure.”
“The baseline is that you can use public funds for public purposes, period,” she explains. And using city employees is the same as using city funds. Lots of mayors do things to try to raise their profiles on the national stage.
And Levinson says that’s all to the good, if there’s a real benefit to the constituents back home. “You have to ask, ‘Is this just for Kevin Johnson’s benefit, or is it for the benefit of the people of Sacramento?'”
So that’s the question, for Johnson, for the city manager and city attorney: How does using city employees to play politics in the National Basketball Players Association and the National Conference of Black Mayors benefit the people of Sacramento?
“If you can’t explain why there’s a public purpose, then there’s a problem,” says Levinson.