If you were watching closely, you might’ve seen Kevin Johnson, the former NBA guard who’s now mayor of Sacramento, sitting courtside at Staples Center during Game 4 of the Clippers-Thunder series.
His arm was around his wife, Michelle Rhee, and the two seemed to preside over the action, conspicuous by design—their very presence in the fancy seats a further rebuke to the man whom Johnson had recently helped to oust from the NBA, Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Johnson and Rhee seem to be everywhere these days. There was a joint appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. There was another at the Kentucky Derby. And of course before either of those was Johnson’s cameo in the Sterling saga. Called in as an unofficial representative of the players, Johnson lobbied NBA commissioner Adam Silver to come down hard on Sterling. After the announcement of Sterling’s lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine, The New York Times‘s Harvey Araton wrote: “[I]t is apparent that the league’s response was shaped as much by the influence of a player turned politician who has no official affiliation with the NBA as it was by Silver’s conviction.”
It was a bitterly funny turn of events for some longtime Johnson observers, who remember when he was the guy making repulsive admissions on tape while speaking with a much younger female with whom he never should’ve been involved. At the very least, they believe Johnson—with an assist from Rhee—earned a lifetime ban from the moral high ground many years ago. “All I can say is the factually supported charges against Johnson certainly bring into question holding him out to be a moral compass,” says New York attorney Gerald Walpin.
From 2007 to 2009, Walpin was inspector general for the Corporation for National Community Service. That’s the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps. On that job, Walpin investigated St. HOPE Academy, a group Johnson founded to run charter schools in his hometown of Sacramento that got lots of AmeriCorps money. In 2008, Walpin issued a referral to the local U.S. Attorney for the “criminal and civil prosecution” of Johnson for “obtaining by law federal funds under a grant,” and the “filing of false and fraudulent claims” in connection with subsidies totaling $845,018.75. The allegations included lots of bogus accounting. People on AmeriCorps’s dime as St. HOPE tutors, according to a joint report on Walpin‘s investigation issued by Congressional Republicans, were being asked to “wash his car [and] run personal errands” for Johnson.
But the seamiest stuff in those files, and there’s a lot of it, comes when investigators take a break from possible fiscal malfeasance to accuse Johnson of physical misdeeds. According to the oversight committee‘s report, Walpin included allegations of “inappropriate sexual conduct” against Johnson in his criminal referral to the U.S. attorney’s office because they could “seriously impact … both the security of young [AmeriCorps] Members placed in the care of grantees and … the ability of AmeriCorps to continue to attract volunteers.” Johnson’s past, as outlined by the committee, also includes alleged hush-money payments to make all this bad news go away. Judging by the non-mention in The New York Times‘s opus, it largely has gone away.
According to the reports, while investigators were in Sacramento looking into the misuse of funds, they “became aware of allegations of inappropriate contact between Johnson and three female St. HOPE students.” Walpin’s office later “uncovered evidence of two other female St. HOPE students reporting Johnson for inappropriate sexual conduct towards them.”
Walpin’s team also was told of various efforts by Johnson and his allies to stonewall the investigations, including one alleged victim who’d said Johnson “offered her $1,000 a month,” ostensibly in exchange for her silence.
No alleged victims’ names were given. However, Walpin‘s referral to the U.S. Attorney does name two St. HOPE staffers who left their jobs to protest the school’s handling of the sexual misconduct allegations. St. HOPE teacher Erik Jones was said to have gone to school officials when a girl told him Johnson had approached her on campus and “started massaging her shoulders and then reached over and touched her breasts.” The report says Kevin Hiestand, who identified himself only as counsel for St. HOPE, contacted Jones, and advised Jones that he had also spoken with the accuser and that the teacher’s description didn’t jibe with her account. Jones later found out that Kevin Hiestand, along with his father Fred Hiestand, also served as Johnson’s personal attorneys. Jones quit the school in protest, and in his resignation letter wrote, “St. HOPE sought to intimidate the student through an illegal interrogation and even had the audacity to ask me to change my story.” When Johnson began his run for mayor of Sacramento in 2008, Jones reportedly put up a banner in his front yard: “No Perverts for Mayor.”
According to Walpin’s report, Jacqueline Wong-Hernandez was the other St. HOPE staffer to leave the school in disgust after Johnson went unpunished. Wong-Hernandez reported allegations of sexual misconduct against Johnson to St. HOPE administrators, and got a visit from board member Michelle Rhee. (Rhee would later serve as the D.C. public schools czar and for a time was viewed as a savior of a broken education system by everybody except those who had ever actually dealt with her. She told Marie Claire magazine that Johnson didn’t ask her out until after she’d quit the board and taken the D.C. job.) Wong-Hernandez later learned that one of the alleged victims she’d mentioned to Rhee had been contacted by Kevin Hiestand.
Reached at her current job with the appropriations committee of the California State Senate, Wong-Hernandez confirms that she did in fact leave St. HOPE in protest. She, too, is surprised to see Johnson tossing his two cents into the Sterling saga. “I have been avoiding that story because of [Johnson’s involvement],” Wong-Hernandez says.
Rhee also got a personal meeting with Walpin, in which she requested that the IG call the dogs off Johnson. “She tried to talk me out of proceeding,” Walpin says. “I took it as simply a non-substantive attempt to help a friend.”
Walpin says Rhee’s request had no impact. Yet the feds’ look-see into Johnson’s operation was ultimately overwhelmed in 2009 by a partisan brouhaha between Congressional Republicans and the then-fledgling Obama administration: Walpin was a George W. Bush appointee and is a member of the conservative Federalist Society; Johnson was a rising Democrat who’d proclaimed on the Colbert Report that he was so tight with the newly elected president that his nickname was “Little Barack.” Johnson was never formally charged with any crimes relating to Walpin’s investigation. He was, however, suspended from receiving U.S. government grants, which caused problems beyond St. HOPE since he was mayor of Sacramento. To be removed from the no-grant list, Johnson and his organization agreed to repay hundreds of thousands of misused federal dollars.
Walpin says he made enemies in the new administration, and ultimately lost the IG job, because he said at the time that the settlement offers to Johnson were too lenient. The Congressional report on the IG’s investigation, issued by GOP hardliners Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), blasts the Justice Department for making that deal, and in doing so touched on an older, even more sordid chapter from Johnson’s past. The Issa/Grassley report asserts that the settlement with the St. HOPE founder “ignored Kevin Johnson’s willingness to personally pay to resolve civil matters.”
“In 1997,” the report states, “Johnson agreed to pay $230,000 to resolve claims brought by a Phoenix teenager who alleged Johnson molested her.”
The story of that payment, which goes otherwise unexplained in the Issa/Grassley report, is described at length in an amazing Phoenix New Times story about a series of alleged molestations committed by Johnson in 1995. The accuser, according to this story, initially met Johnson when she was 15, while both were filming a gun-violence public service commercial starring the Suns guard. That encounter led to a summerlong courtship; the girl’s mother told police Johnson would call almost daily, and the New Times article says he showered her with presents “including bookstore gift certificates, a flute, a Swiss Army knife with his jersey number, ‘7,’ engraved on it … [and] introduced her to great works of literature, including 100 Years of Solitude and I, Claudius.”
In return, according to the story, the girl allowed Johnson to shower with her, get in the Jacuzzi with her, and lie naked in bed with her. After the relationship ended, the girl confided in her therapist. As required by law, the doc went to the authorities. However, the therapist told police and the New Times that she did not go to the police until after she’d confronted Johnson about his relationship with her patient. At that point, she told the paper, she “knew that there had been sexual contact.”
In a letter written to Johnson by the accuser’s lawyer and later scrutinized by the New Times, the accuser recounts their first improper encounter, which happened during a visit to Johnson’s house.
He said I could sleep in his room or the guesthouse and I chose the guesthouse. … We got into the bed and he took all of my clothes off and all of his but his shirt. He was on top of me touching me all over—my breasts, butt, in between my legs, and stomach. Then he took off his shirt. I didn’t really know what to do—I was very confused because I thought we were friends, but I didn’t know what else to do than to go along with it.
After one of the trysts, she told her lawyer, Johnson made her “pinky promise not to say anything.”
“When I asked why,” she said, “he said I knew why.”
In July 1996, according to the New Times story, Phoenix police recorded an “ambush” phone call that the alleged victim made to Johnson in an effort to draw him out about their encounters. By then the accuser’s therapist had contacted Johnson, the police report said, and perhaps even tipped him off that legal authorities were on the case. The story included a partial transcript of that call that the paper obtained from the cops, and in it Johnson comes off as guarded. He opens up the conversation telling the then-17-year-old: “I miss you bad. I don’t like not being able to talk to you.”
Here’s a portion in which the girl is trying without much success to get Johnson to admit that what they did during one tryst was more than “hug.”
Girl: “Well, I was naked and you were naked, and it wasn’t a hug.”
K.J.: “Well, I felt that it was, you know, a hug, and you know, I didn’t, to be honest, remember if we were both naked at that time. That is the night at the guesthouse?”
Girl: “Yeah. … Why would I be upset if it was just a hug?”
K.J.: “Well, I said the hug was more intimate than it should have been. But I don’t believe I touched your private parts in those areas. And you did feel bad the next day and that’s why we talked about it.”
Girl: “Well, if it was just a hug, why were either one of us naked?”
K.J.: “Again, I didn’t recall us being a hundred percent naked.”
Local prosecutors didn’t hear anything in the call to convince them that criminal charges against Johnson were warranted. Johnson’s attorney, Fred Hiestand, told New Times that the girl’s story was false: “I can say that [Johnson is] a healthy, red-blooded, American male, and he hopes to find the right wife and settle down,” Hiestand told the paper. “There are lots of women who are [adults] who are sending him their photos, tape recordings and letters. … If he was interested in any kind of sexual action, he had a lot more attractive offers than [the accuser].”
The New Times story said that Kevin Turley, a Phoenix attorney representing the alleged victim, had contacted Johnson before the story was published and demanded $750,000 from the NBA star to keep his client from filing a lawsuit for “sexual assault and battery.” No such suit was ever filed. The Sacramento Bee reported in 2008 that Johnson had paid her $230,000 to make those allegations go away, a figure repeated in Walpin’s reports. Turley, contacted at his Phoenix offices, hung up without responding when asked if the numbers were accurate.
Fred Hiestand, contacted at his law office in Sacramento, referred all inquiries about Johnson to the mayor’s staff. In response to several questions about the fiscal and sexual allegations made against Johnson, the mayor’s press secretary, Ben Sosenko, issued the following statement: “While appreciating that those who are in the news generate click-throughs, the Inspector General’s report is really old news from 2009 that had no merit then as confirmed by the fact that the book on the matter was closed a long time ago by both local and federal officials, including the US Attorney who independently concluded that the report was misleading.”
Sosenko’s statement, through all its statementishness, holds some truths. Given the way Silver leaned so heavily on Johnson during the NBA’s crisis with Donald Sterling, all the nasty things alleged in the Congressional and New Times investigations must have seemed like “really old news” to the commissioner. In any case, Silver was prevailed upon to bring down the hammer on Sterling, and Johnson enjoyed his “turn on the national stage,” and the owner was left wondering what he could’ve done differently. “I wish,” Sterling told an L.A. lifestyle magazine, arriving at a lesson his antagonist seemingly learned decades ago, “I had just paid her off.”