Are Sex Abuse and Charter School Scandals Catching Up With Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson?
Johnson is the famous ex-NBA basketball star who became a charter school founder, then the mayor of Sacramento, CA, and was recently president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. But according to a series of investigative reports on Deadspin.com., a sports blog, Johnson’s past is filled with underage women who he molested as a sports star two decades ago, to teenage students and teaching assistants he fondled as the principle of a charter school that he founded. Some are now speaking up and not burying that past.
“There was no penetration. No rape. No knife to the throat threatening death. Just something that happened,” writes Mandi Koba on her blog, recounting the summer two decades ago when she was 15 and hanging out with Johnson the basketball star. “But it nearly destroyed me. It’s not been the physical harm that was caused me that’s taken the longest to heal from. Not the way his hand felt on my body. Not his hot breath on my face. Not even the words that he whispered. It’s been the messages. The feelings of worthlessness. Feelings that I was responsible.”
Koba, now in her mid-30s, wrote that she “lost control” of her life “because of who my abuser was.” Like many of the women who have kept secret their abuse by Bill Cosby years ago and are now speaking up, Koba said she is trying to “support victims on their journey to becoming survivors, [to] use my own story to add to the other voices of survivors who choose to speak out and try to dispel the many myths people have about sexual abuse.”
Johnson’s history with Koba is detailed in a 1996 Pheonix, Arizona, police report that describes how he gained her trust and began physically imposing himself. Her therapist contacted police and an investigation ensued. No charges were filed, as is often the case when celebrities are involved and the details less than black and white. A decade later, Johnson’s personal attorney, Fred Hiestand, told the L.A. Times that “his accuser was mentally unstable and had been swayed by a zealous therapist.”
But what’s telling in the Deadspin article by Dave McKenna is that Johnson apparently didn’t change his behavior after that sordid chapter—where he writes that “Kevin Johnson paid [Koba] precisely $230,600 for her silence.” A decade later, in 2007, Johnson was back in hometown, Sacramento, and the founder of a charter school, St. HOPE, where he laid the building blocks for his political ascent. Yet at St. HOPE, Johnson’s history of crossing innappropriate personal lines repeated itself.
A teacher, Erik Jones, “went to police in 2007 after a student told him that she and other kids at St. HOPE had been molested by Johnson,” McKenna writes. A child abuse report filed with police by Jones quoted one of the young women saying, “Mr. Johnson [a teacher and President of St. HOPE publics Schools] came up behind me and started to massage my shoulders. Soon his hands were on top of my breasts. The situation grossed me out and that was not the first time... He is a family friend, but I feel creeped out when he does this. He has also done this with other girls in the class and with one of the Hood Corps [older AmeriCorps members who siged up as teaching assistents] he tried to crawl into her bed. And that is why she quit Hood Corps.”
At the time, Johnson was running for mayor of Sacramento and was principal of the school. His campaign replied that the accusations were unfounded and noted the school had put together an “impartial three-person panel” that investigated and found nothing wrong. “No charges were filed in that case,” wrote Deadspin. “The leader of that impartial panel? Kevin Hiestand—Fred Hiestand’s son.”
Jones, who filed the police report, ended up leaving St. HOPE. He said that the team led by Hiestand pressured different students and him to change their story, even pulling one student out of a classroom to discuss her testimony. They “even had the audacity to ask me to change my story,” his resignation letter said. “Kevin Johnson said education was the civil rights movement of the 21st century, and I believed it.”
The Personal Gets Political
Johnson isn’t just a rare ex-pro athlete who has reinvented himself as a politican. He is a big star in the universe of elite national players who have been pushing privately run—but publicly funded—charter schools as the best way to transform public education. His wife, Michelle Rhee, was the chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools from 2007 to 2010, where she led an extremely controversial makeover of the district that involved instituting a test-heavy regime (favored by the school privatization and charter school community) and fired 100s of teachers, making her an enemy of teacher unions and community activists.
There are more than 6,000 charter schools across the country, with California, Florida, Texas and Ohio having the most. As has happened many times, some founders have discovered the schools can be a fast way to quickly get rich. That’s because charter schools—and charter school boards—take over running schools from traditional school district administrators and school boards, and can contract with whoever they want for needed services: from renting buildings for schools; to books, computers and other school supplies inclusing curriculum materials; to hiring staff.
Charters typically get their funds from a mix of state tax revenues, federal Department of Education program grants, and private foundation grants. Some of America’s wealthiest foundations—seeded by Bill Gates and the Walton family behind WalMart—routinely give hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support the charter school industry.
That deregulated backdrop creates many temptations to enrich oneself by overcharging for a long list of school services, or by misappropriating funds—which is exactly what the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Education’s Corporation for National and Community Service said occurred with Johnson over three school years—2004-05, 2005-06, 2006-07. The Corporation for National and Community Service runs the AmeriCorps program, where 75,000 young people and seniors work in national service projects subsidized by the federal government. Teaching in poor neighborhoods is a typical assignment.
In a 62-page letter and report to federal prosecutors urging criminal charges be brought, DOE Inspector General Gerald Wolpin concluded that “Mr. Johnson converted for his personal use and the use of St. HOPE Academy (Mr. Johnson’s controlled entity) the portion ($677,310.77) paid directly to SHA [St. HOPE Academy], and fradulently caused the Government to disburse the balance ($167,707.94) to persons not entitled to benefit.”
The IG report also detailed allegations of inappropriate sexual contact by Johnson with five young women—AmeriCorps participants, who joined that national service to gain experience working in education. In one instance, it said how Johnson told one women to follow him to the apartment used by AmeriCorps volunteers after 11 PM one night under the pretense of reviewing grades. She told the IG that she “sat at the edge of the bed to show him grades, at which time Mr. Johnson ‘layed down behind me, cupping his body around mine like the letter C. After 2-3 minutes or so, I felt his hand on my left side where my hip bone is,’” the report said (page 33), prompting the women to leave her room. “When she returned, Mr. Johnson was still in her bed, but now apparently sleeping.”
Most of the IG report, however, describes how Johnson misused the federal grant for its charter program. He ordered AmeriCorp members to mostly perform menial tasks and to work on local political campaigns—which is prohibited—specifically for school board members who would vote on re-certifying his charter school. The IG’s dossier portrayed Johnson as a man who believed that he could do most anything and get away with it. His application said he would be using the federal funds to tutor elementary and high school students, create and promote arts, redevelop buildings near the school, and recruit and train “500 volunteers to complete 10,000 hours of service.” But that’s not what happened.
Instead, the Inspector General found that the AmeriCorps members became the school’s clerical and maintenance staff—answering phones, cleaning, painting and washing “Mr. Johnson’s personally owned car.” AmeriCorps participants were also used to call recruit students and lobby parents of a charter school in New York City that Johnson wanted to take over. The members said they did no tutoring, but were told by Johnson to work on campaigns “for candidates for the Board of Eduation, who, SHA leadership believed, would be more likely to vote in favor of renewing SAC High’s charter.”
Johnson also required the AmeriCorps participants “to engage in an extremely strenuous, perhaps sadistic, Boot camp, that was not described in the grant application,” which also included “a test on New Testament scriptures, which is an impermissible insertion of religion.” The IG report also said Johnson used AmeriCorps funds to subsidize “non grant-related employee” salaries and forged hours worked by AmeriCorps members.
Johnson’s abuse of AmeriCorps funds was not unprecedented in the charter school universe, USA Today reported in 2011, noting that Inspector General Wolpin, who wrote the report recommending prosecution, was fired soon after President Obama took office. “The U.S. attorney declined to prosecute but signed a settlement allowing Johnson and the city of Sacramento to keep receiving federal contracts,” it said. “Johnson denied wrongdoing as part of the settlement but admitted St. Hope ‘did not adequately document’ some spending.”
The conclusion of Wolpin’s report is filled with the same indignation that Mandi Koba wrote about on her blog last June when she explained her decision to start speaking out about what happened with Johnson two decades ago. “We recognize there may not be enough evidence at this time to support a charge against Mr. Johnson concerning these incidents of improper conduct,” Wolpin wrote. “But there are sufficient reasons, we suggest, to use the grand jury for further digging.”
He described much the same pattern of covering up his behavior as Koba. The IG report said the AmeriCorps member who was fondled by Johnson when came into her room to review grades was later approached by “Kevin Heistand, Johnson’s personal attorney… [who]basically asked me to keep quiet.” Another AmeriCorp member said Johnson kept reaching under her clothes during a trip to New York City, but she did not want to make any trouble because she needed Johnson’s help to get into the Military Academy at West Point, where she was admitted.
The Kevin Johnson story has two threads—one personal, one political—with a common feature of breaking personal boundaries and blurring professional lines. He is now in his second term as mayor of Sacramento and sees a bright political future for himself. The charter schools he founded are still running, through he and Rhee are not directly involved in running it or on its board.
But still more controversial boundary-breaking still follows Johnson. As DeadSpin’s McKenna reported in September, Mayor Johnson has ordered his city attorney to sue a local alternative newspaper that was looking into his role in 2013 in taking over the National Council of Black Mayors and then abandoning it after it financially collapsed. Apparently, the trail of emails and legal filings in that fight, he writes, “exposes a strange and secretive aspect of Johnson’s administration: Lots of folks who used Sacramento city government titles and worked out of City Hall while doing Johnson’s dirty work in the NCBM fiasco were in fact not employed by the city government. They were instead charter school advocates, funded by charter school ideologues, who kept their true allegiances and mission hidden.”
Just as Wolpin said that Johnson was misusing AmeriCorps members to build his charter school empire, McKenna said that Johnson was using employees of local charter school non-profits for his political empire. “Since his 2008 election, Johnson has requested and received millions of dollars for Stand Up, the group that employed the fake civil servants, from the Walton Family Foundation, a conservative grant-giver backed by the founders of Wal-Mart and known for beinghell-bent on spreading its pro-charter school gospel. Between 2012 and 2014, while he was planning and executing his NCBM coup, Johnson reported at least six grants from that foundation totaling $1.625 million.”
Meanwhile, the victims of Johnson’s desires and ambitions are not going quietly into the night. On her blog, Mandi Koba—who was molested by Johnson two decades ago and is now speaking up as part of her volunteer work as a sexual assualt crisis responder—wrote that she is pessimistic that abusers like him will be held to account.
“My relationship with my perpetrator was not a secret,” she said. “It happened out in the open and there were glaring warning signs that something wasn’t quite right. And it haunts me that no one said anything… how my life would be so different if someone had. Say something.”