Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Devastating details but no smoking guns in HBO’s Kevin Johnson exposé

An HBO report about long-standing sexual allegations against Mayor Kevin Johnson offered a few new details but no smoking guns.

Before March 22’s episode of “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” we already knew that law enforcement officials in Phoenix and Sacramento had found nothing criminal in Johnson’s dealings with young women who made accusations against him. All that has been proved about Johnson is that there were times when he engaged in egregiously inappropriate behavior.

Sacramento already knew that about its mayor, whose story, at this point, remains the same.

Johnson was a local prep sports star from Oak Park. He was an NBA standout nominated for the Basketball Hall of Fame, an education reformer and the first African American mayor of Sacramento. Along the way, unseemly allegations have dogged him, but he has never been charged with any crime, and he has denied the accusations.

The worst allegation against Johnson came 20 years ago, when a 17-year-old girl named Mandi Koba told Phoenix police that Johnson – then the Phoenix Suns point guard – touched her breasts and vagina while the two showered together. She was 16 at the time of the alleged incident.

A student at one of Johnson’s Sacramento schools said he touched her breasts in 2007, but her story was later recanted after she was called into a meeting with Johnson’s attorney, who also represented the school. Two 18-year-old women who were interns for Johnson’s educational nonprofit also made allegations. One said he put his hand on her thigh. The other said he lay down beside her on her bed and touched her hip.

Those allegations were the backbone of the HBO report and have been addressed in The Bee since 2008, when Johnson first ran for mayor.

However, there were a few new twists: Some of the women who have accused Johnson of wrongdoings, including Koba, appeared on camera for the first time to tell their stories. Former interns – Xian Thao and Amanda Thomas – publicly put their names next to accusations. And HBO reported that Johnson paid a private settlement to a female City Hall employee whose sexual harassment claim was dismissed by the city of Sacramento.

It’s been suspected that Johnson privately paid off Ilee Muller, who worked for City Manager John Shirey and accused Johnson of sexually harassing her in a claim denied by City Hall officials last year. HBO didn’t say how it confirmed that a private settlement was reached between Johnson and Muller. Nor did HBO cite any named or unnamed sources for this information.

Muller has not spoken publicly, though just as the HBO report was premiering, she tweeted a quote from William Shakespeare: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

Does Muller mean that Johnson rises by sin while she and the rest of his accusers fall by virtue? She hasn’t responded to interview requests from Bee staffers.

Koba told HBO that she regrets accepting Johnson’s $230,000 in a private settlement that called for confidentiality. She regrets “protecting” Johnson for years until telling her story to the website Deadspin last year.

Koba repeated the same allegations to HBO that she first made in a videotaped interview with Phoenix police in 1996 that found new life on social media last year. That video caused ESPN to shelve a documentary about the Johnson-led effort to keep the Kings from relocating to Seattle.

Then as now, Koba said Johnson preyed on her vulnerability and spent more time with her than any 29-year-old NBA star should with a 16-year-old girl. Koba said Johnson undressed her and fondled her. Johnson repeatedly denied this in a phone call between the two that was taped by Phoenix police. It was a disturbing conversation.

“Can I say something off the record?” Johnson said to Koba.

“Sure,” she replied.

“I miss you bad,” he said.

At another point, Koba was disputing Johnson’s claim that all they had done together was engage in a hug that was too intimate.

“Well, if it was just a hug, why were either one of us naked?” Koba said.

“Again, I don’t recall us being 100 percent naked,” Johnson replied.

“OK, well do you think us being naked together and taking a shower was normal or healthy?” Koba asked.

“I told you, the judgment was not in the best, and I’m sorry about that,” Johnson replied.

The lack of a solid confession from Johnson or physical evidence and witnesses were the primary reasons why Phoenix authorities never prosecuted or arrested Johnson. Koba told police she never had sexual intercourse with Johnson, nor had he ever kissed her.

Kim Curry-Evans, a former Johnson aide, said on the HBO program that another alleged incident changed her opinion of Johnson. She didn’t share specifics, but said she regretted not previously believing Koba or other Johnson accusers. She has not responded to repeated interview requests from The Bee.

The HBO piece cast doubt on the dismissal of a 2007 allegation that Johnson touched the breasts of a high school student. Showing the logo of the Sacramento Police Department, “Real Sports” cited an unnamed law enforcement source who said the recanted allegation was “a product of compulsion, pressure from (Johnson supporters).”

But in 2008, and again Wednesday, Rick Braziel – the former Sacramento police chief – told me police determined that the allegation had been legitimately recanted. Braziel said the girl told police officers that Johnson had never touched her breasts and the allegation had been embellished by other people. Other allegations covered in the HBO piece were written about extensively over the years in The Bee – from accusations that his personal attorney Kevin Hiestand acted as fixer whenever Johnson ran into trouble to stories of former supporters who became estranged from Johnson.

“I was devastated, shattered into a million bits,” Curry-Evans, who ran Johnson’s 40 Acres Art Gallery until she abruptly resigned in 2009, said in the HBO piece. “I was one of those folks who blindly was following Kevin.”

Despite these allegations, many have considered Johnson the right mayor at the right time for Sacramento. He remains popular among those who like him, reviled among those who don’t.

Though nothing Johnson has done has resulted in arrest or prosecution, he has left shattered people in his wake. It’s all part of the same picture of the man. Johnson didn’t speak to HBO, but that hardly mattered. Sacramento already knows him, for better and for worse.