A legal showdown has been postponed over the potential release of emails between Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and his private attorneys regarding his controversial and short-lived leadership of a black mayors association.
Attorneys for Johnson, the city and the Sacramento News & Review agreed at a court hearing Thursday to the creation of a document list to determine which if any of the approximately 100 emails in dispute are covered by attorney-client privilege and shouldn’t be released to the newspaper. If the parties ultimately can’t agree on particular emails, they’ll return to Sacramento Superior Court Judge Christopher Krueger for a decision. There’s no timetable yet for creating the list, known as a “privilege log.”
Johnson sued the city earlier Thursday in an unusual case prompted by his role as president of the National Conference of Black Mayors from May 2013 to May 2014. His presidency was subject to a legal tug-of-war, with some factions challenging whether he was legitimately elected. Johnson argued that the group was riddled with corruption, and a Georgia state court ruled in his favor. Eventually the conference went bankrupt and Johnson founded a new group called the African American Mayors Association.
With litigation still pending over control of the earlier group, the News & Review and The Sacramento Bee filed Public Records Act requests with the city attorney to gain access to documents relating to Johnson’s tenure at the National Conference of Black Mayors. Although Johnson used a private Gmail account to communicate with his lawyers at the Philadelphia firm of Ballard Spahr, city officials were copied on some of the notes. That meant the emails wound up on the city’s computer servers.
The Bee and the News & Review were awaiting a determination from the city attorney on whether the 100 disputed emails were truly exempt from release because of attorney-client privilege. The city was preparing to release the records on Tuesday.
Johnson sued on behalf of himself, the National Conference of Black Mayors and the trustee overseeing the conference’s Chapter 7 bankruptcy case.
Complicating matters, the News & Review’s lawyer Thomas Burke handed the judge a resolution from the national conference, dated Thursday, demanding “full release” of the emails and noting Johnson resigned as president of the group more than a year ago. The resolution was signed by Mayor Gary Richardson of Midfield, Ala., as president of the organization. Richardson has been highly critical of Johnson’s tenure with the group.
Johnson’s lawyer, Peter Haviland, said “the origin of this document is suspect.”
Arguing that the emails should be kept private, Haviland told the judge, “It’s not like we have anything to hide. We don’t think there’s anything damaging to the mayor’s office.”
City Attorney James Sanchez said the city wasn’t willing to release all the emails without a ruling from the court.
The case raises fresh questions about Johnson’s use of the mayor’s office as a platform to advocate on national issues. As reported by The Bee, previously disclosed emails show that he enlisted members of his City Hall staff to work on business for the National Conference of Black Mayors.
Sanchez said in an interview that there’s nothing wrong with elected officials working on non-city issues. But using private email accounts to communicate on issues that might affect the city can be problematic, he said.
Johnson’s press secretary, Ben Sosenko, defended the mayor’s use of private accounts. “The private email accounts are used for things that are not city business,” he told reporters. “The mayor is completely open and transparent.”
It’s the second time this week that the issue of Johnson’s electronic communications have come up in court. On Tuesday, the mayor revealed that he had deleted some texts related to the city’s agreement to subsidize a downtown arena for the Sacramento Kings, despite a legal letter advising city officials to preserve such communications. His testimony came as the city defended itself against a lawsuit by three citizens alleging it gave secret subsidies to the Kings’ owners to facilitate their purchase of the team.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said the Sacramento News & Review was demanding the release of about 100 emails between Kevin Johnson and his attorney. Both the News & Review and The Sacramento Bee have requested the emails and have been waiting for the city attorney's position on whether they are protected by attorney-client privilege.