The city of Sacramento on Monday fulfilled a judge’s order to release more than 70 email documents relating to Mayor Kevin Johnson’s controversial takeover of an embattled black mayors group in 2013.
The emails between Johnson, his city staff and associates show the lengths to which he sought to oust leaders of the National Conference of Black Mayors that year. More than 6,100 pages of emails released last year captured the vast efforts by Johnson to take over the organization with help from city staff and volunteers, but the new documents provide additional details.
The documents cover a period beginning in late June 2013, shortly after Johnson took control of the black mayors’ group in a contentious move that ultimately led to a prolonged court battle. The documents released Monday largely deal with the fallout of Johnson’s takeover and his subsequent attempt to fire the organization’s executive director, Vanessa Williams.
The emails show Johnson was closely involved in her removal and that he personally conducted at least one exit interview with her staff to collect information detailing claimed financial irregularities. Johnson also personally negotiated with Williams to attempt to settle the ongoing dispute outside of court, according to the documents.
Johnson wrote some of the emails himself. In one dated July 11, 2013, he expresses a need to respond to a media report about the situation.
“We need to refute this asap … we cannot let this stand,” he wrote from his campaign email address. The email continues that “credibility is being chipped away.”
Some of the documents from Johnson’s staff appear on a letterhead that reads “Office of the Mayor.” However, it is not city letterhead and bears the logo – “A city that works for everyone” – from Johnson’s personal campaign website.
Many of the newly released emails come from Johnson’s campaign accounts or from Google mail accounts containing “omkj” in the name, for “Office of Mayor Kevin Johnson.”
In August 2013, Johnson associate Aisha Lowe jokingly suggested that the mayor’s team should ask Williams to resign by sending an email with the subject line, “Why don’t you just leave already?” She followed up with an email clarifying, “That was a joke. Don’t actually use that :)”
Lowe was the head of Stand Up, an education advocacy group that Johnson founded in 2006, for which the mayor raised nearly $4 million in behest contributions. In a July 2013 email, she also described herself as “interim director of African American Affairs” for the mayor’s office.
While Johnson faced criticism for using city staff to take over NCBM, his spokesman last year said Johnson’s NCBM leadership benefited Sacramento by raising the city’s profile in Washington, D.C., and was therefore legitimate city business. Johnson has argued that some of the emails should remain confidential because they were not sent from city email accounts and should not be subject to public disclosure laws.
Johnson’s spokeswoman, Crystal Strait, suggested that he faced scrutiny because it was an African American organization. She said other city officials use city resources to work with outside groups without drawing attention.
“He has been warned by many people that this isn’t worth it,” she said. “There wasn’t anything for him in it but I think ... it really speaks to the fact to how dedicated he is to making sure that African Americans … have a voice.”
Strait added that the mayor opposed releasing the emails because both the original case in Georgia courts and a secondary case involving the group’s bankruptcy are ongoing. He disputed the release based on legal advice, she said.
Johnson and the black mayors’ group sued the city and the Sacramento News & Review last year, arguing that about 160 email documents should be withheld under attorney-client privilege in response to the newspaper’s records request. The News & Review argued that all of the documents should be public record.
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After the list was reduced to 113 documents in question, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Christopher Krueger ruled earlier this month that only 38 documents were completely privileged, and that Johnson had to release 75 documents, some with redactions. Four of the 75 released Monday were blank; it was not clear why.
Although The Bee submitted its own request for the documents last year, the newspaper was not listed as a respondent in the mayor’s lawsuit after agreeing to allow the city attorney to independently determine whether correspondence was subject to attorney-client privilege.