The Slatest

ESPN Delays Doc Involving Obama Ally Kevin Johnson Over 1995 Sexual Assault Allegation

Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson and President Obama at the United States Conference of Mayors on May 19 in Sacramento.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

ESPN will delay the broadcast of a documentary about the Sacramento Kings because of renewed reporting on a sexual assault allegation against one of the film’s subjects, former NBA star and Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, Sports Illustrated reports.

A woman who says she was sexually abused as a minor by Johnson came forward publicly last month; on Oct. 8, Deadspin published a 1996 video that shows her describing Johnson’s alleged criminal behavior to Phoenix police. (Police chose not to prosecute Johnson.) On Oct. 6, after a tweet by Johnson about the TPP trade agreement was retweeted by more than one official White House account, a reporter asked White House press secretary Josh Earnest about the assault allegation against Johnson, an Obama administration ally who has made multiple appearances with the president. (Earnest did not specifically comment on Johnson’s case in his response but said that “the President’s views on sexual assault and his commitment to stopping sexual assault … I think [are] quite well known.”)

Deadspin’s Dave McKenna has been reporting on Johnson’s past (and present) for months, covering a variety of allegations against the former Phoenix Suns guard, who is married to former head of Washington D.C. schools and education activist Michelle Rhee. Johnson, mayor of the capital city of California, has been accused of:

Sexually abusing a 15-year-old girl in Phoenix in 1995. The alleged victim identified herself publicly in a Sept. 25 Deadspin piece; her name is Mandi Koba and she says that by speaking she is violating a non-disclosure agreement that she signed as part of a $230,600 settlement with Johnson in 1997. In a 1996 police video, Koba describes Johnson fondling her breasts and buttocks and touching her leg and and hand with his penis. (Johnson was not charged for any crimes relating to his relationship with Koba and has said the allegation against him is untrue.)

Misusing federal AmeriCorps funds at his St. Hope Academy charter school organization in Sacramento. The allegations, made in a report by a federal inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service (the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps), resulted in the organization paying some money back to the government in a 2009 settlement after Johnson was placed for a time on a list of individuals who could not receive federal money. (Here’s a New York Times piece about the settlement between Johnson and the government; Johnson has said his suspension from receiving federal funds was “unwarranted and unnecessary” and a spokesman for him has said the inspector general’s report has “no merit.”)

Inappropriate touching involving a St. Hope student and an AmeriCorps volunteer. The federal inspector general’s report says, and Deadspin confirmed, that two St. Hope staff members quit their jobs to protest the organization’s handling of allegations that Johnson had inappropriately touched a student and an AmeriCorps volunteer (the former allegation was reported in 2007, the latter allegedly occurred that same year). Before the allegation about the student was reported to police, the school conducted its own investigation (led by an attorney who is a longtime Johnson associate) which ultimately cleared Johnson internally. The student reportedly recanted her allegation and police did not press charges; a police spokesman said “no evidence indicative of criminal conduct” was found. (The Sacramento chief of police at the time also said that “we did ask the [alleged victim] whether anyone had influenced her—her answer was no.”) Johnson later described the internal group that had cleared him as an “impartial panel.”

The inspector general who made the allegations, a Bush appointee and member of the conservative Federalist Society named Gerald Walpin, was fired by the Obama administration in 2009 in a controversial move questioned by members of both parties. Walpin’s termination was ultimately the subject of a critical Congressional report, issued by Republicans Charles Grassley and Darrell Issa, that made reference to the allegations against Johnson, who has implied that some of the accusations against him are politically motivated.

Blurring the lines of personal, political, and city business as mayor. A source told Deadspin that Sacramento mayor’s office staffers helped perform consulting work that Johnson conducted for the NBA Players Association. Documents obtained by Deadspin and the Sacramento Bee, meanwhile, show that mayor’s office staffers helped plan Johnson’s takeover of the National Conference of Black Mayors despite a Johnson attorney’s statement that “whatever Mayor Johnson did as president of the NCBM was not Sacramento mayor business.” A former Johnson adviser told the Sacramento News-Review that staffers in the mayor’s office worked on political campaigns, and members of the office have also been known to conduct public business via private email addresses a la Hillary Clinton. Additionally, Deadspin reported that several individuals who worked with Johnson identified themselves as representatives of the Sacramento mayor’s office—as in, their titles included phrases such as “Office of Mayor Kevin M. Johnson City of Sacramento”—despite the fact that they were not city employees and were actually paid by a Johnson-founded non-profit charter-school organization that’s heavily funded by the family that owns Wal-Mart. (For what it’s worth, transparency and conflict-of-interest controversies regarding the intersection between public business, nonprofit work, and personal mayoral ambitions are not exclusive to Sacramento.)

Johnson’s press secretary, Ben Sosenko, sent Slate the following statement in response to inquiries about all the issues discussed above:

Mayor Johnson chose to come back to his hometown of Sacramento to make a difference and he is proud of his role in working with local leaders and residents to achieve so many successes.

From the day he entered the 2008 campaign, Mayor Johnson has been the target of endless attacks from those desperately trying to preserve the status quo and putting their interests ahead of Sacramentans.

Despite these efforts to rehash and repackage baseless claims, Mayor Johnson has and will remain focused on his mission since day one - making Sacramento a city that works for everyone.

It’s not clear what will ultimately happen to ESPN’s Down in the Valley, a film about the successful campaign to keep the NBA’s Kings franchise in Sacramento that reportedly portrays Johnson in a very positive light. ESPN’s statement on the delayed premiere said the move is intended to “make sure it’s clear that we are not tone deaf and we’re aware of a renewed focus on certain issues,” and Sports Illustrated says additional interviews and material could be added before the film is broadcast. A Sacramento screening of the film, however, is going forward as planned tonight.

Said Sosenko in a statement: “Down in the Valley tells a true Sacramento success story, highlighting the benefits of an entire community working together to achieve a collective goal. While it’s unfortunate that the air date has been postponed, we’re looking forward to tonight’s premiere and for the rest of the country to learn more about our Sacramento pride.”