Thursday, October 22, 2015

With any luck, the last we'll hear from these two

I've been arguing for a while that the make-up and culture and truly bizarre politics of the education reform movement (which is overwhelmingly made up of honest, well-meaning people) leave it exceptionally, perhaps uniquely vulnerable to grifters who can master the rhetoric. When you combine this vulnerability with plans that put billions upon billions of tax payer dollars up for grabs, things get ugly quickly.

Recently in Sacramento, they got downright hideous.

Charles Pierce points us to a remarkable series by Deadspin's Dave McKenna exploring the various scandals of Mayor Kevin Johnson. Along with wife Michelle Rhee, Johnson formed the ultimate ed reform power couple. Johnson was a former NBA star and up-and-coming politician. Rhee was, of course, the face of the movement. The press loved them, they had extensive lobbying connections and they were great at fund-raising. Johnson even started his own charter school system. They also created a political machine that defies brief description, but some excerpts will give you some idea.

Who's Funding Kevin Johnson's Secret Government?

For example: Stephanie Mash identified herself as “Stephanie Mash, Director of Governmental Affairs for African Americans for Mayor Kevin Johnson” and “Stephanie Mash, Esq., Office of Mayor Kevin M. Johnson City of Sacramento.” But Ballard Spahr’s filing indicates that she was never actually an employee for the city; instead, while helping plan and execute the NCBM coup [National Conference of Black Mayors -- MP], Mash was employed by Stand Up, a non-profit charter school advocacy firm founded by Johnson. Mash’s online resume makes no mention that she ever worked for Stand Up.

Fellow coup team member Mariah Sheriff used the title “Director of Governmental Affairs in Education, City of Sacramento, Office of Mayor Kevin M. Johnson” for years while serving the mayor. Her LinkedIn page identifies her as “Deputy Chief of Staff, Office of Mayor Kevin Johnson,” and says while there she focused on “education initiatives.” Ballard Spahr’s filing, however, says that Sheriff was with Stand Up, not the mayor’s office. Sheriff’s online resume makes no mention of Stand Up. Aisha Lowe used the title “interim director of African-American affairs” for the mayor’s office during the NCBM debacle. Ballard Spahr says Lowe was another Stand Up employee, never a civil servant.

The Sacramento city payroll office says there’s no record that Sheriff, Mash, or Lowe ever worked for the city.


With private operatives working out of City Hall and masquerading as public employees, the question is who’s bankrolling them—and the rest of the mayor’s off-the-reservation missions. It’s not hard to answer. Consider that 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 being hell-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.

And that’s just the Wal-Mart money the public knows about; Johnson has a history of not abiding by disclosure rules. In 2012, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (CFPPC), a panel charged with enforcing state financial disclosure laws, found that Johnson had failed to report at least 25 donations totaling $3.1 million made at his direction to his non-profits, including a $500,000 payment to Stand Up made by the Walton Family Foundation. State law requires that every gift over $5,000 must be reported. (The commission also found that Johnson hid a $200,000 donation to Stand Up he’d requested from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. The Los Angeles Times reported last month that the Broad Foundation was planning to fund “a major expansion of charter schools in Los Angeles.”)


The Walton Family Foundation is also a massive financial supporter of Students First, another financially flush group. Founded by Michelle Rhee, it houses its headquarters in the same office building in downtown Sacramento as Johnson’s Stand Up. In 2013 alone, the Walton Family Foundation gave $8 million to Rhee’s non-profit.


Johnson’s bewildering gaggle of foundations—Stand Up is just one of at least seven 503-C organizations he controls—have long lent an aura of shadiness to his administration. Since taking office, he’s directed big corporations to donate gobs of money to his non-profits and to St. HOPE, his chain of public charter schools. And his behest filings indicate that the groups regularly share money with each other, meaning it’s effectively one really deep pool of money for Johnson to swim in. These gifts can have the impact of campaign donations, but aren’t subject to campaign-finance regulations.

“It’s almost like a parallel government structure has been created,” Common Cause’s Derek Cressman told the News & Review in 2012 of Johnson’s multi-coffered set-up. “But one that doesn’t have the same transparency and accountability.”


NCBM brass understand why Johnson would cover up how Stand Up funded his presidential run. NCBM has a long, close relationship with the National Education Association, a massive teachers union with deep anti-charter school leanings. The NEA website lists NCBM as a partner, and NEA president Reg Weaver was a featured speaker at the 2008 NCBM convention in New Orleans, alongside Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Having a charter school zealot in charge of NCBM wouldn’t sit well with the group’s old guard.

“The black mayors are not buying the charter schools, period,” former NCBM president Robert Bowser told me last year.

As we know now, Johnson’s takeover mission went horribly, so he never got to exploit the pipeline into the black community for charter schools that he tried to get from NCBM. But while the Waltons didn’t get much ideological bang for their bucks, they didn’t walk away with nothing to show for the millions of dollars they threw at Johnson. In 2013, Johnson successfully lobbied the city council to repeal Sacramento zoning regulations that had kept Wal-Mart out of the city.

The good news is that Johnson won't be running for a third term, but that may be due to an entirely different set of scandals.

1 comment:

  1. Mark:

    Everything I knew about Kevin Johnson I knew from recent Gawker articles, so your post did not surprise me. But then I was curious about Johnson's general media coverage so I checked on Google News and found this NYT article, which (to me) was surprisingly positive about the guy. Yes, they mentioned the allegation that he molested a teenage girl 20 years ago, but it wasn't until the 25th paragraph of a 31-paragraph news story that the corruption was mentioned. Almost all the quotes on him were positive, including one from a political science professor (!).

    Also this, which fits one of your recurring blog themes:

    "He led a bruising political fight in 2003 to push out the unionized teaching staff at his hometown high school, which he said was cheating neighborhood kids out of a decent education.

    Now called Sacramento Charter High School, the facility has about half the students and dramatically higher test scores."

    Selection bias, anyone?