GOP report casts Mayor Kevin Johnson in cover-up

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Nov. 21, 2009.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson allegedly offered to pay a young woman $1,000 a month after she accused him of touching her inappropriately two years ago, according to a congressional report released Friday.

The accusation is contained in a 62-page report issued by two ranking Republican congressmen investigating President Barack Obama’s firing last summer of Gerald Walpin, a federal inspector general who had been investigating alleged misuse of federal grant money by Johnson and his nonprofit St. HOPE organization.

Walpin sent the findings of his probe – including the allegation that Johnson had offered the payments – to the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento for consideration of criminal charges. The office reviewed Walpin’s findings and opted instead to reach a civil settlement with Johnson.

“The facts outlined in the referral give rise to reasonable suspicions about potential hush money payments and witness tampering at a federally funded entity,” the congressional report concludes. “Yet, it is unclear what, if anything, the U.S. attorney’s office did to investigate these allegations.”

Johnson spokesman Steve Maviglio vehemently denied the allegations Friday.

“There is absolutely no merit to these politically motivated allegations,” Maviglio said. “They are categorically false.

“It is sad and unfortunate that the right-wing minority in Congress is playing politics with allegations that have been dismissed by professional prosecutors, the Republican U.S. attorney, and federal officials at AmeriCorps from both political parties.”

The report was compiled by investigators for U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley. It is the latest salvo from a group of congressional Republicans who contend that Walpin’s firing was politically motivated.

Democrats have declined to order hearings into Walpin’s firing, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento did not cooperate with the GOP probe, the report states.

The White House downplayed the report as partisan, saying Walpin was fired because of his performance as inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees the AmeriCorps program that provided grants to St. HOPE.

“The White House stands behind the decision to remove Mr. Walpin,” spokesman Adam Abrams said.

“There is nothing new in today’s report, which ignores the multiple bases for Mr. Walpin’s removal and doesn’t provide a shred of evidence that suggests he was removed for any reason other than performance issues.”

For Mayor Johnson, the allegations in the GOP report threaten to reopen controversies the mayor’s camp thought had been settled last year.

Johnson has been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct since the 1990s, when he was a star point guard for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.

In 1996, Phoenix police investigated claims by a 16-year-old girl that Johnson molested her. No charges were filed, but Johnson made a $230,000 confidential settlement with the teen, according to a draft legal document obtained by The Bee. The draft agreement said that Johnson, 29 at the time, had denied the allegations.

In 2007, Sacramento police investigated a teacher’s report that a 17-year-old Sacramento High School student told him Johnson had fondled her. Police said the teen told investigators her comments had been misconstrued – that Johnson rubbed her shoulders, but the contact was not criminal.

Walpin account a vivid read

Along with their report, Issa and Grassley released 30 pages of findings that Walpin sent to the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento last year detailing his investigation into Johnson and St. HOPE.

St. HOPE, based in Oak Park, runs an array of nonprofit endeavors, including Sacramento High School and Hood Corps, an urban service program for young adults funded in part by federal grants. Johnson founded St. HOPE and directed its programs until he stepped down last year to run for mayor.

Walpin began investigating St. HOPE’s use of federal grant money in 2008. In the course of the investigation, his office accused St. HOPE of numerous violations, including using Hood Corps members to wash Johnson’s car, run errands and recruit students for St. HOPE schools.

Walpin’s report also provides vivid details of allegations made by one young woman against Johnson. The report does not name the woman or specify her age, but indicates she was serving in the Hood Corps program Johnson oversaw.

According to the report, the woman reported in 2007 that Johnson showed up at her apartment around midnight to review grade entries. The report does not clarify what the grades were for.

She told investigators she sat on the edge of a bed to show Johnson the grades, and Johnson “laid down behind me, cupping his body around mine like the letter C. After about 2-3 minutes or so, I felt his hand on my left side where my hip bone is.”

The woman showed investigators “that Mr. Johnson’s hand went under her untucked shirt and moved until his hand was on her hip,” according to Walpin’s report. She said she left the room and when she returned, Johnson was asleep in her bed.

Eventually he moved to a couch in the living room, the report states, and left the apartment around 6 a.m.

The woman told investigators she reported the encounter to her supervisors at St. HOPE. The night after reporting the incident, Johnson “approached her and apologized,” Walpin’s report states.

The woman said she then was approached by Kevin Hiestand, St. HOPE legal counsel and Johnson’s personal attorney. The woman told investigators that Hiestand “basically asked me to keep quiet.”

A week later, according to Walpin’s report, the woman told Johnson she was going to quit Hood Corps for financial and family reasons. Johnson “offered to give me $1,000 a month until the end of the program,” the woman told investigators. She said Johnson told her the arrangement would be “between him and I.”

According to the report, Johnson told the woman “all he needed was my savings account number” to make deposits. But she declined the offer.

The woman’s roommate recounted a similar version of the incident for investigators, the Walpin report states.

Johnson fiancee involved?

The congressional report also alleges involvement by Michelle Rhee, chief of public schools in Washington, D.C., and now Johnson’s fiancee.

According to the report, a former St. HOPE official told investigators that Rhee – at the time a St. HOPE board member – did “damage control” after learning of a sexual misconduct allegation against Johnson. The report does not specify whether it was referring to the allegation by the Hood Corps member.

Jacqueline Wong-Hernandez told investigators she notified Rhee of an allegation against Johnson and was told by Rhee that she was “making this her number one priority,” the report states. Soon after, the report says, Wong-Hernandez learned Johnson’s attorney had contacted the person who made the allegation.

After reviewing Walpin’s evidence, Lawrence G. Brown, then acting U.S. attorney for Sacramento, determined there was no criminal wrongdoing by Johnson or St. HOPE, and agreed to a civil settlement in which they would repay $400,000 in grant money.

The congressional report concludes that decision came because of “mounting political pressure.”

Walpin said Friday that he believes Brown should have convened a grand jury.

“I have no reason to believe that they did a thorough investigation of all of the allegations,” Walpin said. “I was a former prosecutor, and I know that every time I received a referral from a government agency ... I would use a grand jury in order to determine the facts, both to protect the government’s interests and the defendant’s interests.”

Instead, Brown asked for a federal investigation of Walpin for allegedly overstepping his authority, withholding key information from his report and engaging in a media campaign about his findings.

That review by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency determined last month that Walpin had done nothing improper.

By then, however, Walpin had been fired. He has since filed a federal lawsuit seeking to be reinstated.

On Friday, Benjamin Wagner, the newly installed U.S. attorney in Sacramento, defended the way the case had been handled.

“The referral was thoroughly reviewed by experienced career attorneys in this office, and it was determined that criminal prosecution for violations of federal law was not warranted,” he said. “Nothing in the report issued today affects our view that the matter was handled appropriately by this office.”

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis