Former K.J. special assistant reveals email and elections wrongdoing inside mayor's office

R.E. Graswich is more than just Hawaiian-print shirts and local sports takes. For instance, after the former Sacramento Bee columnist left the hive, he did a stint under Mayor Kevin Johnson at City Hall.

From 2009 through 2012, Graswich was part of K.J.'s inner circle, a senior adviser. He also briefly worked at Johnson’s nonprofit, Think Big, in 2013, where he focused on Kings arena matters.

Perhaps as much as anyone inside the mayor’s world, Graswich understands its ebb-and-flow. He reached out to SN&R last week to discuss K.J.'s email problem—the mayor’s blurring of private and public business (and even elections work) inside his office.

Graswich says that, just days after he joined the mayor as “special assistant,” former Chief of Staff Kunal Merchant (who now is a vice president with the Sacramento Kings) set him up with a private Gmail account.

Graswich says Gmail was his “main form of communication” with fellow K.J. staff.

The mayor’s spokespeople have repeatedly stated that Johnson and staff use emails for public business, and then Gmail accounts (with the OMKJ label for Office of Mayor Kevin Johnson) for private work. They insist that there is a separation, that the lines don’t get blurred, and they they follow all state, city and Fair Political Practices Commission rules.

Graswich, however, painted a dissenting portrait of operations inside K.J.'s City Hall.

He told SN&R, for instance, that the mayor and staff used Gmail for everything. He says he did “more than 80 percent” of his communications via Gmail.

“Gmail was our bullet-proof method of communication beyond the reach of the city and the public,” Graswich told SN&R via phone.

Why Gmail? He says that the mayor and senior staff had “a real paranoia” about keeping their conversations away from others at City Hall, especially fellow council members. “We really wanted to separate ourselves from the bureaucracy, from the apparatus. Nobody trusted the”

The mayor did not have a city-provided computer in his office, nor did he carry a city cell phone (he had two of his own personal phones), according to Graswich. “He would not use any city equipment whatsoever.”

The former adviser says they never discussed using Gmail to avoid public-records inquiries. “It was an underlying motive, but it was never explicitly stated.”

He claims that mayoral adviser, attorney Jeffrey Dorso, advised that Team K.J. should “be careful” using Gmail, and that they shouldn’t assume their messages would remain private for ever. “’Don’t do stupid things,'” Graswich says Dorso advised.

Indeed, California law rests in a gray area when it comes to public officials using private email for communications. “We didn’t really know what the law was,” Graswich admitted, adding that there was essentially a “cavalier attitude” that they could do whatever they wanted.

He reiterated that Gmail was the office’s main form of communication. “It was either text or Gmail. We didn’t use city of Sacramento [email] at all. I certainly didn’t.”

The mayor has been dinged with record fines by the FPPC, which oversees state election rules and conduct, in the past. “And that was my biggest concern of all,” says Graswich. “I knew we couldn’t do campaign work on city computers and in City Hall. But we did.”

Graswich says the mayor had an office “across the street” from City Hall for campaign work, but that he and staff never followed state law, using “shortcuts” to save time, as opposed to crossing the street every time campaign discussions and work needed to be done.

“We used city equipment (desk top computers and cell phones, in some cases) to compose and send Gmail—and the content co-mingled city business with political/campaign business and personal material,” Graswich wrote in an email to SN&R.

“And that was double-sacrosanct. And we were violating [state law]. It was just sloppy.” 

He admits to being uncomfortable with this, especially after then-city manager Gus Vina circulated a memo reminding electeds it is forbidden to do campaign business on city time and inside City Hall.

Were those rules broken? “Absolutely, yeah,” Graswich told SN&R. 

He left the mayor’s office near the near the end of 2012 for a stint at Think Big. He calls the lines between the mayor’s private nonprofits and groups and his city work are “very blurred.” He left Think Big after four months, he says. 

There are rumors of a falling out between in him and the mayor. Is there bad blood? He says no. “I still believe in the things that [the mayor is] trying to do,” he said. “Do I have an ax to grind? No.”

He chalked up the separation to not fully buying in to the so-called Church of K.J. “There’s an inner-sanctum of Kevin, and those are the people he trusts. And he trusts no one else. There was a final barrier that I never got through, and that was the trust barrier.”

Photo of Graswich courtesy of Sacramento Magazine.

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