A prominent Democratic politician who was banned from receiving federal aid three years ago over fraud charges is once again raking in government funds from the very same program he abused. It pays to be a FOTO -- Friend of the Obamas.
Our publicly subsidized con artist is Sacramento mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson. He donated the maximum individual amount to Obama for America, campaigned across the country for Obama in 2008, and bragged to California media during his mayoral run about his friendship and access to both Barack and Michelle Obama. The Obama administration's Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) recently bestowed Johnson's city with an AmeriCorps grant worth more than $650,000.
The money will flow into Sacramento's "Get Fit Now! Initiative," which will hire 124 AmeriCorps members "to teach fitness and nutrition education to children and offer adult fitness classes for their parents. They will also set up school-based gardens where children will learn how to grow fresh vegetables."
That's a lot of fertilizer-shovelers employed in the name of "public service." If the award smells funny, it should. For Johnson, AmeriCorps has indeed been all about service -- self-service, that is.
In 2008, the independent Inspector General overseeing AmeriCorps, Gerald Walpin, concluded that Johnson and aide Dana Gonzalez had squandered hundreds of thousands of a nearly million-dollar grant earmarked for his nonprofit youth organization, St. HOPE. Based on Walpin's investigation, AmeriCorps' parent organization (the aforementioned CNCS) suspended Johnson and Gonzalez's access to federal funds. Here's a refresher on their fraud and abuse that led to the ban:
-- Using AmeriCorps members to "recruit students for St. HOPE Academy."
-- Using AmeriCorps members for political activities in connection with the "Sacramento Board of Education election."
-- Assigning grant-funded AmeriCorps members to perform services for Johnson such as "driving (him) to personal appointments, washing (his) car, and running personal errands."
-- Improperly using AmeriCorps "members to perform non-AmeriCorps clerical and other services" that "were outside the scope of the grant and therefore were impermissible" for "the benefit of St. HOPE."
Johnson didn't get jail time. Instead, the Democratic U.S. Attorney in Sacramento cut a cozy settlement deal so Johnson could avoid criminal prosecution. The deal also allowed Johnson to repay just a fraction of the money he siphoned from AmeriCorps coffers for personal gain -- and it freed Johnson to receive federal Obama stimulus money for Sacramento. (My most recent check of the Recovery.gov website shows the city has taken in at least $32 million in stimulus cash.)
In keeping with this administration's brutal war on whistleblowers, Walpin was unceremoniously fired and smeared by Team Obama. The White House baselessly questioned the veteran watchdog's mental health and accused him of political interference. The first lady then installed her former chief of staff, Jackie Norris, in AmeriCorps' top management to ensure -- in Mrs. Obama's own words -- that they remained the program's "No. 1 cheerleaders."
Even more troubling, Johnson continues to reap government tax dollars for youth programs while he remains dogged by questions about his predatory behavior with teenage girls. A little-noticed section of the joint November 2009 report by GOP Sen. Charles Grassley and GOP Rep. Darrell Issa on Walpin's firing revealed that the AmeriCorps inspector general's investigator "became aware of allegations of inappropriate contact between Johnson and three female St. HOPE students." Their stories mirror a similar incident involving Johnson (then 29 and playing for the Phoenix Suns) and a 16-year-old girl dating back to 1995.
Johnson's attorney, Kevin Hiestand, approached at least one of the St. HOPE students describing himself only as "'a friend of Johnson's,'" and "basically asked me to keep quiet," according to the student. She had complained to St. HOPE officials that Johnson groped her sexually after instructing her to grade papers with him in her apartment. The report also highlighted what clearly looks like a hush-money and witness-tampering attempt: "According to her interview with OIG investigators, about one week later, Kevin Johnson offered her $1,000 a month until the end of the program, which she refused to accept."
Erik Jones, a teacher at St. HOPE, reported to the police that one of his students told him Johnson "started massaging her shoulders and then reached over and touched her breasts." Jones quit his job in protest over the seeming cover-up of Johnson's harassment and wrote in his resignation letter that "St. HOPE sought to intimidate the student through an illegal interrogation and even had the audacity to ask me to change my story."
Another student recounted for investigators how Johnson "kissed her cheek, brushed up against her" and touched her thigh on various occasions -- as well as flipping up her skirt on a St. HOPE-sponsored trip to Harlem. She didn't report the incidents to AmeriCorps officials at the time because she "feared she would be terminated."
Another St. HOPE official, Jacqueline Wong-Hernandez, also left Johnson's nonprofit over the whitewash. Michelle Rhee, Johnson's fiancee and former D.C. schools chief, was a St. HOPE board member at the time. The Grassley-Issa report noted, "According to Wong-Hernandez, Rhee learned of the allegations and played the role of a fixer, doing 'damage control'" and vouching for Johnson's character.
He's a "good guy," Rhee told Walpin. Taxpayers -- and especially parents of teenage girls and AmeriCorps workers in Sacramento schools -- should beg to differ.