Mayor Kevin Johnson’s political career effectively ended when we saw and heard the woman he paid to remain silent.
You can ignore the distressing video if you wish, but Mandi Koba’s accusations that Johnson molested her are online for all to see. So is her tiny frame, her girlish gestures, her childlike voice. She had just turned 17 at the time she spoke to a Phoenix police officer on July 19, 1996, when Johnson was a star point guard for the Phoenix Suns. Twelve years later he would run for mayor of his hometown.
Koba’s interview was videotaped by police. While its transcript was published by The Bee and others in 2008, the video remained unseen by the public until sports website Deadspin recently released it. In it, Koba told a detective that Johnson fondled her body the summer before, in 1995, when she was 16. Where did he touch her? “My stomach. My breasts. My butt. ... My vagina,” she said. Did they have intercourse? No, she said. Had he kissed her? No, she said.
She also told the detective that Johnson had caressed her stomach and breasts while the two were in the shower together. She said he had undressed her. He took his clothes off as well, she said. Describing another encounter, she said Johnson rested his hand on her lower stomach, above her undergarments. On another occasion, Johnson climbed in bed with her, she said, and she zoned out, went to another place, as Johnson fondled her.
After going to police, Koba was persuaded by detectives to call Johnson. It was dubbed a “confrontation call.” The police were listening and recording when Koba and Johnson spoke by phone on July 23, 1996.
A transcript of that phone call also has been public for years, available on sacbee.com. When you read it, the “he said/she said” nature of the case becomes clear. During the call, Johnson denied Koba’s allegations. He said he did not fondle her. He said he was not naked with her. He said he did not climb in bed with her. He said the worst that had happened was a hug that became too intimate. He said he regretted the hug; it was inappropriate and he felt badly that she was upset.
Later, detectives wrote in their report: “At this point in the investigation, there is not enough evidence to proceed with a criminal complaint. Lacking the physical evidence and a successful confrontation call, this report will be pending until further information is obtained which would allow this investigation to proceed.”
It did proceed and Johnson never admitted anything. Phoenix authorities never brought charges. However, Johnson did pay Koba, her family and her lawyers a $230,000 settlement in 1997 to make the case go away, as previously reported by The Bee. It required all parties to remain silent. They did, even when this episode went public in 2008 when Johnson ran for mayor. He won, was re-elected in 2012, became president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, frequently dined at the White House, helped save the Kings from leaving Sacramento, and established a national profile.
When Deadspin and others began taking aim at Johnson on his political and business practices earlier this year, he kept right on rolling. Nothing really stuck, until that nearly 20-year-old-video of Koba surfaced on Oct. 8. Days later, ESPN shelved “Down in the Valley,” a documentary of the Johnson-led effort to keep the Kings from relocating to Seattle. The film, which portrays Johnson and Sacramento in a flattering light, had been scheduled to air nationally. ESPN acknowledged its decision to pull it was a result of the Koba video.
With the recording, past allegations have found new life and a digital audience. This time around, Johnson’s claims that this was an old case rang hollow. But ultimately, it didn’t matter. He was done, announcing last week he would not seek re-election. He could say he wasn’t walking away from politics because of the alleged sexual misconduct, but we knew he was. Johnson would be fooling himself if he thought he could run for a record third term for mayor while continuing to stonewall and to pretend that his past wasn’t a problem for him and his supporters.
There are some on Twitter who have compared Johnson to Bill Cosby, but that’s hyperbole. Johnson is a celebrity in a position of power – and other women have accused him of sexual misconduct, one as recently as four months ago – but he never has been accused of the things Cosby has been accused of. Also, Koba didn’t wait years past statutes of limitations to go to the police. Phoenix cops investigated Johnson, but the trail didn’t lead to anything that could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
One thing is for sure, though: The video epitomized the egregiously inappropriate nature of Johnson’s relationship with Koba. The “confrontation call” offered further proof. “Can I say something off the record?” Johnson asked Koba on the police recording in 1996. “I miss you bad!” The conversation then meandered in disturbing directions, with Johnson displaying detailed knowledge about the teenager’s life. Later, they debated the nature of previous interactions. “Well, I was naked and you were naked ... and it wasn’t a hug,” Koba said. “Well, I felt that it was,” Johnson said. “You know a hug and you know, I didn’t to be honest remember if we were both naked at that time.”
She brought it up again, asking “if it was just a hug, why were either one of us naked?”
“Again, I didn’t recall us being a hundred percent naked,” he said.
Like the transcripts, the video has become an artifact in the history of his demise. It wounded Johnson profoundly. It precipitated a rash of bad national press from outlets including The New York Times, The New Republic and Esquire. It hastened his decision to give up a run at a third term as mayor. Before that, negative headlines had done little to limit Johnson’s upward political trajectory.
In recent weeks, I’ve asked myself why wasn’t I more explicit in quoting the police transcripts of Johnson’s creepy phone call with Koba when I wrote about this issue in 2008. In the end, it’s because she wouldn’t talk about the case and neither would he. I am not going to brand someone a pedophile or a sexual predator when he was never charged – let alone convicted – and when he denied every accusation. What was left were transcripts of a teenager accusing Johnson of something that never was substantiated or resulted in criminal charges.
What the video did was give a voice and a face to an episode that’s become as much a part of Johnson’s record as his many achievements.
Everything in the ESPN film is true: Johnson saved the Kings. Downtown is surging with investment now. He has been a great salesman for the city. His celebrity and telegenic persona have attracted investors, creating excitement and optimism around town.
But there are people in Sacramento – and beyond – who have felt used by Johnson’s seductive personality, as Koba said she did in that Phoenix police video. It’s all part of the same picture of Sacramento’s most complicated native son.