- Photo courtesy of Cleveland City Council
- Ken Johnson, 37 years on Cleveland city council.
In 2017, 54-year-old small business owner Gail Sparks ran against Councilman Ken Johnson in Cleveland's Ward 4, an area that includes portions of Buckeye-Shaker (including Shaker Square), Woodland and Mt. Pleasant. Sparks ultimately lost the election, but came within 13 percentage points. Other than the razor-thin margins that separated candidates in three contentious races where incumbents were unseated — Joe Jones over Terrell Pruitt in Ward 1, Basheer Jones over TJ Dow in Ward 7, and Jasmin Santana over Brian Cummins in Ward 14 — Sparks came closest to defeating an incumbent in a year when all 17 councilpeople were up for re-election.
Sparks was adamant, during the campaign, that Ken Johnson had been engaging in unethical tactics. Johnson had sent mailers to residents before the primaries, for example, advising them that only he would be able to maintain funding for street repairs and for a grass-cutting program coordinated through the local CDC, Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corporation, that senior citizens appreciated.
"My opponents WILL NOT be able to continue any of our unique senior programs regardless of what they have told you," Johnson wrote in the mailer. "My ward 4 programs are almost totally run by [my] volunteers. These dedicated residents have volunteered for me for many years. When I leave office — by law — all of our unique Ward 4 programs (mowing grass and snow removal for both seniors and the disabled, holiday gift cards, and etc.) must end."
This was nonsense, but Sparks knew that many residents would believe it. Johnson had been councilman since 1981, and even though a growing number of constituents in the ward had come to understand that Johnson was disengaged — he was not a reliable voice at City Hall, they believed, and he seemed to care only for the rec center that bore his name — Sparks knew that he held sway over seniors. He was "holding them captive," she said, and he ought to be reported to the Ohio Ethics Commission.
Now, in the wake of an extensive series of articles and columns by Cleveland.com's Mark Naymik about Johnson's sustained misuse of public money while in office, Sparks feels validated. At least somewhat.
She told Scene last week that residents have been reaching out to her as the articles have tumbled out this summer and fall. They have voiced their concern about the well-being of the ward.
"It's depressing what a cesspool of corruption and conflict of interest Cleveland city government is," Sparks said. "Ken Johnson has been misusing his power, influence, and taxpayer money for decades, and his colleagues and the powers-that-be in city government have looked the other way."
Sparks said she wondered how Naymik first got tipped off to the story — Johnson's misbehavior has been an open, if nonspecific, secret for years — and said she hoped her vocal criticisms of his actions on the campaign trail, including her comments during the Plain Dealer endorsement interview, played a part in bringing these issues to light. While she recognized the value of the reporting, the revelations saddened her.
"I'm wondering whether any person who truly wants to help the citizens of his or her ward can accomplish any substantial good in the present environment of corruption and influence peddling," she said. She has not decided whether she'll run for city council again.
Naymik has written a total of 13 stories about Ken Johnson and the Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corporation, some of which have led to immediate changes at the behest of city council leadership. Before we assess what's next for Johnson, though, let's review what exactly has been exposed.
On July 9, Naymik published the first of many stories documenting instances or patterns of financial impropriety and mismanagement by Ken Johnson. The stories have been meticulous — some readers have called them overkill — but they demonstrate how the ward and its community development corporation have been commandeered to achieve a set of selective and extremely personal ends at the expense of the ward's health.
The first story exposed the failings of the Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corporation. The CDC had become little more than a grass-cutting operation that employed several people with close ties to Johnson, including one of Johnson's sons and his council assistant, Garnell Jamison. Paying for these employees had created a burden for the CDC that was identified by an outside accounting firm as a root cause of its financial woe.
Like other councilpeople, Johnson annually earmarked hundreds of thousands of federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) dollars for his area CDC. But BSSDC was now in considerable debt and unlikely to manage forthcoming loan payments. Naymik reported how, after an external audit, the nonprofit Neighborhood Progress Inc. stopped providing funding for BSSDC as well, at which point Johnson accused NPI's director, Joel Ratner, of being a bigot and a racist. (When Scene reached out to NPI, they declined to comment for this story.)
Several stories followed in quick succession. Naymik published a commentary arguing that the city should stop branding city vehicles used in Ward 4 with "compliments of Ken Johnson" signs. Johnson claimed to have purchased the vehicles personally with the blessing of former mayor George Voinovich. This claim was later proven false.
The next week, following up on the BSSDC story, Naymik reported that because the CDC hadn't supplied previous years' audits to the city — the financial picture was a mess — they would forfeit their right to receive further federal funds, a major blow. More information about Johnson's bloated grass-cutting program was revealed here as well: In 2017, upwards of $200,000 had been allotted for this purpose. In 2018, $300,000 was budgeted. The city's new community development director, Tania Menessee, said that in the future — assuming BSSDC stayed afloat — no more than 25 percent of federal dollars could be used for grass-cutting.
On a roll now, Naymik then published a story that more directly implicated Johnson. One of the councilman's sons was living rent-free in a home owned by BSSDC. Johnson claimed that his son, Kevin, was given the opportunity to live there because no one else wanted to and he'd intended to "fix it up." The improvements, Johnson told Naymik, would stabilize the neighborhood. Johnson's version was corroborated by BSSDC's executive director John Hopkins, but disputed in a story the following week. Naymik spoke with a neighbor who'd been hoping to acquire the home and had been misled by Johnson into believing she'd be able to purchase it after the property was transferred to BSSDC from the county land bank. No such luck.
While that drama unfolded, there was yet another damning piece about BSSDC. The organization had failed to pay more than $50,000 in taxes on homes being rented to low-income families as part of a county program. BSSDC was receiving rental payments on the 75 homes and was meant to pay the taxes from that revenue, but had failed to do so. BSSDC had also stopped paying federal payroll taxes. It was unclear where its money was going, but the rental payments on the homes it owns now appear to be its only source of income.
The ongoing reporting on BSSDC was accompanied by deeper dives into Johnson himself. Naymik discovered that the Kenneth Johnson Recreation Center employed three men with the last name Johnson, and that Johnson had claimed all three of them as dependents on previous tax forms. Johnson denied that two of them were his legal children.
Last month, Naymik reported that Johnson had been receiving $1,200 per month in city council reimbursements, the maximum allowable monthly allotment, for something he called "ward services." He'd allegedly been paying another city employee who lived on his street and claimed to be working several hours per day, five days a week, 52 weeks per year, checking in with residents about the grass-cutting program. When Naymik received additional city records, the story expanded. Johnson had been receiving the $1,200 reimbursement every month since 2007, a grand total of more than $168,000. (Other councilpeople receive these reimbursements as well, though their receipts were more clearly itemized.)
Naymik told Scene that he hears from residents of Ward 4 after each story and that they are happy someone is examining both their councilman and their CDC.
"I plan to continue to chase stories related to both," Naymik wrote in an email. "The residents deserve the sunshine."
Indeed, the residents and local activists that Scene has spoken with are also generally pleased that the information is coming out. Many in Ward 4 and in Blaine Griffin's neighboring Ward 6 have felt that BSSDC has been managed ineptly for years.
Ward 4 activist Michelle Jackson told Scene that in light of Naymik's stories, residents held a meeting in September in which they planned to directly address Johnson about the revelations. Johnson invited representatives from the police and other city services to address the group, "knowing full well that the meeting was intended for him to answer questions about the articles," Jackson said. Once they got around to asking him questions, "he deflected and lied."
Jackson wrote Scene in an email last week that a group of Ward 4 activists plan to meet in the coming weeks to discuss more concrete next steps.
"We are committed that the solution to the Johnson problem be driven by Ward 4 voters," she said. She also noted, last month, that when one of her team members spoke to the mayor's office about ramifications for Johnson, he was told that neither the mayor nor city council had any recourse to investigate the councilman.
If there's no official recourse, there has nevertheless been a guarantee by the Mayor's Office to perform its due diligence in assessing the Johnson revelations. City council spokesperson Joan Mazzolini told Scene that council president Kevin Kelley has forwarded information to Cleveland law director Barbara Langhenry, who will make an independent assessment about how to proceed. That might include referring the investigation to an outside agency — the police, the county prosecutor, etc. The schedule for her recommendation remains up in the air.
Naymik's reporting, though, has had other short-term effects. When the city denied BSSDC further federal funding dollars, it essentially shuttered the organization. The city also claimed that it would be painting over the "compliments of Ken Johnson" signs" on city vehicles in Ward 4. That task may be underway, but — per recent eyewitness testimony from a Scene staffer — has yet to be completed. Additionally, when Kevin Kelley learned that Johnson's monthly council reimbursements were going to pay another city employee, he immediately turned off the spigot.
In a piece last month, Scene suggested that Johnson's conduct should be regarded as scandalous by his council colleagues. We said that Johnson should resign and should forfeit the right to appoint a successor.
That's unlikely to happen, say current and former council members. (Many members of city council were in California last week for a National League of Cities conference and were unable to respond to requests for comment). Others did, but spoke off the record.
But councilman Mike Polensek, as usual, had no qualms about speaking his mind. He said the whole ordeal had "cast a cloud" over city council — many of his colleagues felt this way too, he said, even if they don't admit it — and should be dealt with as soon as possible by council leadership.
"If they ignore it, they run the risk of an ongoing perception that city council only cares about protecting the individual, and not protecting the community," Polensek said. "The perception in the streets is not good."
But what would "dealing with it" look like, Scene asked? Would Johnson be forced to step down?
"There are rules and regulations," Polensek said. "If he committed a crime, he's out." (According to Polensek, this only applies to felonies. Zack Reed, for instance, wasn't booted for his DUIs, because they were misdemeanors.)
If that's the case, though, the city charter still allows that Johnson would appoint his successor. A former councilperson told Scene that the appointment was likely to be Johnson's son. Polensek said that he's not opposed to that arrangement, because, assuming Johnson is removed before his final year in office, his appointed successor would still have to run in a special election. Polensek made sure to note that as yet, Johnson has officially committed no crimes and was only speaking speculatively.
But he said there's no obvious alternative to a councilperson appointing his successor. He suggested that the Democratic central committee members in Johnson's ward might be able to make an appointment, but noted that the committee would likely be "loyal to Kenny" and would no doubt honor whatever recommendation he made.
"I'm most concerned about representation of the community," Polensek said. "I've been concerned about the image of the council for a while now. The bad perception is real."
Former councilman Brian Cummins, who was the Executive Director of Old Brooklyn's CDC before he became a councilman, said the lesson these Johnson stories has taught him were about CDCs.
"Generally speaking, the compliance of community development organizations is pretty good," Cummins said. "But ultimately there's not a whole lot of performance components [when you get federal dollars]. Eventually it'll catch up to you, but it's not like there's a quick switch. A bad situation can smolder for years. If you get a shitty dictator, or somebody who doesn't know what they're doing, or who's just in it for themselves, this can pretty easily happen in Cleveland."
Cummins said that's illustrative of a larger problem: that many councilpeople tend to think only for themselves and their wards.
"There aren't many focused on the whole city," he said. "You've got leaders very concerned about their individual wards, and so no one's going to speak out when Johnson gets caught doing the same thing. That's the culture of council."
Scene managed to get Councilman Ken Johnson on the phone and asked him about his response to the stories. Did he feel he'd been covered unfairly? Did he have any inclination to resign? Johnson asked that we submit our questions in writing. We did so Friday afternoon and have received no response.