Dave McKenna of Deadspin writes here about the release under court order of emails written by outgoing Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson about his efforts to take control of the National Conference of Black Mayors, bankrupt it, and open a new organization that would promote charter schools. Johnson is married to controversial Michelle Rhee, who has been a beneficiary and advocate for charters and vouchers.
This is a must-read.
The emails come mainly from the early days of Johnson’s hostile takeover of the National Conference of Black Mayors—the mayor and his minions described their mission against the historic Atlanta-based non-profit as a “coup” when they launched it in 2013—and reveal lots of no-goodnik behavior from Johnson and his coup team, a clique of civil servants on the Sacramento payroll, staffers from Johnson’s huge web of nonprofit groups, at least three public relations outfits, volunteer hangers-on, and lots of lawyers from the firm of Ballard Spahr. (At least a dozen Ballard Spahr lawyers have worked pro bono for Johnson on NCBM litigation.) The records indicate that at some point Johnson changed his goal from running the NCBM to ruining it. Johnson’s team, for example, is found dispatching secret agents to spy on NCBM board members at hotels and restaurants while conspiring to sabotage a potential $2 million windfall for the NCBM scheduled to come just a few months before he filed to have the organization dissolved through the bankruptcy courts. The documents also appear to support detractors’ long-leveled allegations that Johnson mingled the NCBM’s mission with that of Michelle Rhee, his wife and fellow school-privatization demagogue.
The city clerk’s release of the documents completes a request made under the California Public Records Act in the spring of 2015 by Cosmo Garvin, a reporter for the Sacramento News & Review. Unlike the rest of the media in the state capital, Garvin covered Johnson tenaciously and aggressively. He knew Johnson was conducting business using Gmail accounts rather than his assigned government address, so he requested any records on the city’s public servers from those personal email accounts. On July 1, 2015, Johnson sued his own city and Garvin’s weekly newspaper to prevent hundreds of emails from being made public, claiming attorney/client privilege….
The bulk of the unsealed documents deal with Johnson’s takeover of the NCBM, a clandestine and ultimately disastrous effort that peaked in May 2013 when he succeeded in being named president of the group, only to be deposed by the group’s board of directors two weeks into his term. It’s been a non-stop legal battle ever since between Johnson and NCBM elders, with suits filed by and against the group’s executive director, Vanessa Williams, and a controversial bankruptcy petition all still pending. After civil litigation in Georgia courts, Johnson was restored as the NCBM’s president in early 2014, but was still clearly at war with his constituents.
Johnson’s only meaningful act after regaining the presidency was a request, filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Georgia on April 30, 2014 to have the NCBM dissolved under Chapter 7 of the federal code. Then on May 1, 2014, just one day after the bankruptcy filing and before he’d even resigned as NCBM president, Johnson founded a clone non-profit group, which he dubbed the African American Mayors Association (AAMA). He named himself president of the new group, and brought many NCBM sponsors with him. He installed AAMA’s headquarters on Pennsylvania Ave. NW in Washington, D.C.—just three blocks from the White House. (The just-released documents indicate that AAMA’s prime real estate was originally offered by former NCBM board member Clarence Anthony for use by the NCBM.)…
As expected, the latest batch of documents—totaling several hundred pages—shows that Johnson’s misuse of attorney/client privilege staved off potential political embarrassments, many of them NCBM-related. He was, to give one telling example, preventing the release of his schedule for Sept. 9, 2013, which included preparation for a trip to Birmingham, Ala. The listed rehearsals included a “Students First Session” followed by “NCBM Prep.”
StudentsFirst is the charter school advocacy group founded by Michelle Rhee. (Johnson is also a major player in the school privatization movement.) The email that Johnson tried so hard to hide provides a reminder that he and Rhee went to Birmingham together to exploit the attention being given the 50th anniversary of bombing of the 16th Street Church. Amid the solemn commemorations of that seminal moment in the American civil rights movement, they co-hosted a town hall meeting promoting charter schools.
One of the reasons Johnson would presumably want this played down is that the NCBM has historically opposed charter schools, and didn’t like Johnson using their group to further an education agenda that both membership and leadership vehemently opposed. Former NCBM president Robert Bowser told me in 2014 that the group had made their stance clear to Johnson after he proposed a resolution to get the NCBM to endorse charter schools. “We took a vote and said, ‘Hell no!’ to his resolution,” Bowser said. “The black mayors are not buying the charter schools, period.” Rhee, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly despised by Washington, D.C.’s black residents when she ran its public school system from 2007 to 2010; any hint that the NCBM was being used to serve her ends would likely be toxic to the group’s core constituency.
The Birmingham meeting, as it turned, didn’t provide any obvious payoff for Rhee. StudentsFirst, which was a cash cow—the Walton Foundation, one of many deep-pocketed benefactors, gave Rhee’s group $8 million just a few months before the Alabama getaway—quietly folded earlier this year, without donating billions of dollars to education projects or meeting any of the other megalomaniacal goals Rhee loudly predicted for her non-profit on Oprah Winfrey’s show at its founding. It’s rather fitting that while StudentsFirst’s website is now largely defunct, its fundraising page is still running and ready to accept donations.