Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s takeover of an embattled black mayors group in 2013 succeeded largely on the backs of city staff and volunteers who lobbied mayors around the country, organized board meetings and acted as intermediaries between the White House and federal agencies, according to thousands of emails and documents released Tuesday by the city.
More than 6,100 pages of emails and 16 documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee through the Public Records Act outline years of involvement by Johnson’s staff of paid employees and volunteers to cement Johnson’s leadership of the National Conference of Black Mayors and gain clout in Washington, D.C., in one of the most vivid examples of the mayor’s ambitions.
NCBM, a historic group born of the civil rights movement, had lost much of its credibility and clout due to years of financial mismanagement, as detailed by court documents and a federal criminal investigation of the group’s former president.
David Pittinsky, a private attorney working with Johnson on NCBM litigation and the mayor’s request to block the city’s release of some emails, said Tuesday on Capital Public Radio that “whatever Mayor Johnson did as president of the NCBM was not Sacramento mayor business.”
But the newly released documents show Johnson aides and volunteers routinely presented themselves as Sacramento city officials when conducting NCBM affairs.
Johnson joined the organization in 2010 and served as its president from May 2013 to May 2014. He paid membership dues of $1,500 each year, which were subsidized by the city. As president of the organization, he led the charge to audit the group’s finances, fire executive director Vanessa Williams and, ultimately, bankrupt the organization and start a new one: the African American Mayors Association.
For each of these initiatives, Johnson looked to several individuals who identified themselves in emails to outside agencies and other mayors as members of Johnson’s staff. But many were fellows, interns and volunteers, who were registered with the City of Sacramento and did not receive a city paycheck, according to city records.
Johnson has long relied on a vast roster of volunteers and consultants to expand his reach beyond City Hall.
Johnson’s spokesman, Ben Sosenko, called the mayor’s use of volunteers and staff for national projects a “common practice” among elected officials. He noted it was mayoral volunteers who created a widely publicized electronic PowerPoint presentation that detailed Johnson’s strategy to stage an “Annual Meeting ‘Coup’ ” to oust Williams, through vote or legal action.
The title page of that presentation said it came from the “Office of Mayor Kevin Johnson” and included the city of Sacramento seal, a document first obtained by the website Deadspin. The Bee obtained a second NCBM presentation Tuesday that likewise reflected the imprimatur of the city.
Sosenko said the Sacramento seal featured on the PowerPoint presentations is part of a template often used by volunteers with the mayor’s office.
The official City of Sacramento letterhead was found throughout the thousands of pages of emails released Tuesday. The messages show that the mayor’s staff, working with NCBM, corresponded regularly with White House officials to help promote the Affordable Care Act.
Members of Johnson’s team – including Cassandra Jennings, a senior adviser to the mayor and a longtime city employee – served as point people in NCBM’s efforts. That work included holding conference calls, answering questions and emailing black mayors around the country to encourage those mayors to hold special events to enroll citizens in health care plans. Jennings, who was a part-time employee, was tapped to coordinate the effort, Sosenko said, because she also led the push to enroll Sacramento residents.
Johnson, whose paid city staff will increase from seven to 12 this year, said last month that his work with the black mayors group ultimately helped elevate Sacramento’s national profile. Critics, such as Councilman Steve Hansen, argue the mayor’s national ambitions have detracted from time and resources spent at home.
“Of course when the mayor heads a national organization, he’s going to use city staff to support it,” Sosenko said Tuesday. “Why? Because it can mean money and programs coming back to Sacramento. It benefits the city.”
Johnson also used his own persona and background to further NCBM goals, the newly released documents show.
An email from the NCBM in March 2014 stated that Johnson’s NCBM office gave away gift cards to cities that performed well in ACA enrollment events. For inspiration, the email included a link to a YouTube video of Johnson dunking on NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon when Johnson played for the Phoenix Suns.
Before he was elected president, Johnson’s involvement in NCBM was closely aligned with his background in national education changes, including efforts to support charter schools, emails show. The mayor and members of his staff recruited speakers to an education summit in Birmingham, Ala., in November 2013 that was co-hosted by the NCBM, and he volunteered to sit on an education-focused committee within the group.
In September 2013, an email group formed by the mayor’s office called “OMKJNCBM” – Office of Mayor Kevin Johnson National Conference of Black Mayors – was focused on an intense effort to oust Williams, the NCBM’s executive director.
A list of bullet points laid out the strategy for firing Williams, including calling mayors who opposed the move only after Johnson’s team had the votes in hand to dismiss her. The email said that the campaign to fire Williams was in “a huge time crunch” and categorizes NCBM member mayors into those who supported firing Williams and those who did not.
Following Williams’ firing, Johnson wrote to members of the NCBM leadership: “The board passed a motion today to terminate Vanessa Williams as executive director of NCBM. A formal termination letter has been sent by our lawyers to her lawyers and a press release will follow. This is an important step for NCBM and will allow us to establish new leadership and move the organization forward.”
Williams, who remains in a legal battle with Johnson over his presidency and her role in the organization, has been accused of spending group money on personal matters, such as expensive trips to Saks Fifth Avenue and school tuition for her children. Neither she nor her attorneys have responded to The Bee’s requests for comment.
Omitted from the batch of documents were 475 emails that the City Attorney’s Office pulled from the public record out of what they called “an abundance of caution.” That came after a private lawsuit filed by Johnson against the city of Sacramento and the Sacramento News & Review seeking to block their release.
Attorneys agreed last week to review and parse through the emails to determine which will be released to the News & Review and The Sacramento Bee, which filed separate Public Records Act requests for information this year about Johnson’s communications. The emails in question were stored on a city server, and the City Attorney’s Office has deemed them part of the public record, but Johnson says they should be protected by attorney-client privilege.
Marissa Lang: (916) 321-1038; @Marissa_Jae