Sacramento Mayor Sues Own City, Local Journalist To Keep Public Records From Being Made Public

from the the-system-fights-the-system! dept

Kevin Johnson: Three-time NBA All-Star. Former (embattled) president of the National Council of Black Mayors. Outgoing (non-embattled) president of the US Conference of Mayors. Frequent litigant. Destroyer of public records. Suer of his own city. Only a couple of these can be considered flattering.

In his latest litigious effort, Mayor Johnson is mounting a multi-pronged attack on both a Sacramento journalist and his city government. At the center of it are documents Johnson claims should be exempt from public records requests: emails sent from his personal Gmail account but which discuss official business.

The suit against Sacramento News & Review writer Cosmo Garvin makes a little sense, at least in terms of disputing the release of documents. But it makes less sense in context. Another newspaper (Sacramento Bee) made a similar request but has not been named in the lawsuit, apparently because it acquiesced to Johnson’s lawsuit threat and altered its records request. (The Sacramento Bee denies doing so, instead claiming it withdrew its request while waiting for the city attorney to make a determination as to which emails will be released. It may not be acquiesence, but it still serves Johnson’s purpose, seeing as this withdrawal didn’t occur until after the mayor’s lawyers announced his intention to sue.)

Garvin did not withdraw his, nor did he alter it. The city attorney’s office has already agreed to release the disputed emails, which is why it is also named in the mayor’s lawsuit. Here’s what Garvin is seeking and what Johnson is hoping to sue back into the shadows:

Among the communications the city attorney was prepared to release were emails between Johnson and lawyers from Ballard Spahr, a firm Johnson used during his brief and debacle-filled reign as NCBM president. Johnson’s suit, however, argues that an exemption in the public-records laws for communications between an attorney and client should prevent their release.

Johnson claims these emails are protected by attorney-client privileges and shouldn’t be released. He (through his lawyer) claims to be all about transparency and the disclosure of “all appropriate public records.” Apparently, he feels these emails are not and maintains it has nothing to do with his highly-disputed, exceedingly brief tenure as the president of the National Council of Black Mayors (NCBM). This assertion would carry a bit more weight if (a) his time at the helm of the NCBM wasn’t marked by allegations of abuse of his position to support his wife’s business and career, and (b) if he hadn’t previously admitted — on record — that he had destroyed documents subject to public records requests.

Johnson testified Tuesday in Superior Court on a separate matter, and acknowledged that he deleted text messages regarding a $500 million sports arena partly funded by the city.

Johnson said he deleted the text messages despite being advised by city staff to save all electronic communication regarding the arena deal with the Sacramento Kings.

Garvin notes that the timing of Johnson’s public record-blocking lawsuit is catastrophic, at best.

“This is on the day that the front page of the [Sacramento] Bee is about the mayor deleting texts,” Garvin said. “It’s the same time the city is getting ready to delete thousands and thousands of emails … which they’ve never done before.”

Adding to the ugliness surrounding Johnson’s litigious desires to maintain a murky relationship with the public is his past abuse of his NCBM position. Considering he’d already been dumped by the Council for his questionable actions, the NCBM is far from pleased that it’s listed as a co-plaintiff in Johnson’s legal fight against transparency. In fact, the two entities are still engaged in plenty of litigation against each other.

Williams and other NCBM board members were also surprised the group was listed as a plaintiff in Johnson’s lawsuit, given how contentious the mayor’s relationship with them has been. Johnson was elected president of NCBM in 2013 under disputed circumstances. The group’s general counsel voided Johnson’s election just two weeks into his presidency, and Johnson sued to have his presidency restored. He and NCBM officials have been suing each other ever since. Williams is personally suing Johnson for defamation.

To combat Johnson’s co-opting of whatever goodwill remains towards the organization, the Council has signed a resolution that disavows any participation in Johnson’s open records litigation and calls for all disputed emails to be released. Johnson is now learning that allies are like family members: you don’t get to choose either one.

While Johnson may have a point about privileged communications, it’s completely undercut by his actions. He (and his staff) have used personal email accounts in hopes of skirting public records requests and he has openly admitted that he has destroyed information responsive to records requests against both city policy and direct instructions to maintain these records.

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