The retirement of I-Team investigator Carl Monday should have been music to the ears of longtime Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson. Over the last several months the Plain Dealer’s Mark Naymik, Scene’s Sam Allard and other local media outlets have raised a barrage of questions about Johnson and his use of public funds.
Some of the allegations center on his use of federal block grant money through the Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corporation. There is also an allegation that his son lives rent-free in a house owned by the corporation. This has prompted, according to the Plain Dealer, an investigation by the FBI’s public corruption squad. Early reports focused on city trucks that operated in Johnson’s ward with signage that said “Compliments of Councilman Ken Johnson.” That signage has since been removed by the city.
There are also allegations of nepotism, but those claims are difficult to sort out since over the years Johnson has reported varying numbers of sons. Probate Court records show that going back to the 1990’s Johnson has been guardian to at least eleven boys, three from as far away as Australia, some of whom he later claimed as his children.
On November 18, The Plain Dealer editorial board called for his resignation.
More recent media attention has focused on Johnson’s use of the $1,200 per month expense account allotted to Cleveland city councilpersons. These allegations raise red flags that there is something amiss in council’s oversight polices for the reimbursement of its members’ expenses. As Johnson continues to come under more and more scrutiny, the silence from Council President Kevin Kelley, members of council and Mayor Frank Jackson is deafening.
This past October, a review of Johnson’s monthly expense accounts revealed that for the past decade Johnson has sought and received exactly $1,200 a month in reimbursements for what he claims to have paid Robert Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is a full-time city worker, who in his spare time provided “ward services” for Johnson — each month, same amount of time, no vacations. Those services amounted to a staggering $168,000 over the decade. What makes the scenario more interesting is that in the past, Fitzpatrick listed his residence as the same as Johnson’s. As a result, Council President Kelley suspended the payments and Mayor Jackson made his usual enigmatic statement that he would investigate the payments. Council did order an audit of Johnson’s expense accounts but that will cost the tax payers another $50,000.
But these changes and the questions asked did not stop Johnson. He was back the following month seeking reimbursement for the same amount — exactly $1,200.
Once in September and again in October, Johnson sought reimbursement for gas that he purchased at the Get Go Station on Mayfield Road. Supposedly the gas was for the lawn mowers used to cut grass in his ward. Which is interesting since by fall most landscapers have put their mowers away. Each trip to the pump cost over $80, with a purchase of more than 30 gallons of gas per trip. Inquiring minds and maybe the prosecutor’s office would like to know how Johnson got that much gas from Mayfield Road to the lawn mowers in his ward. Johnson also submitted receipts for roughly $400 for purchases of gas from September to December at the Shaker Marathon Station in his ward. But the receipts only reflect expenditures — no listings of what was purchased — although Johnson says it was gas.
In the post-Fitzpatrick expense accounts, Johnson listed expenses such as toner cartridges for his printer, a router for his home computer system, play plaques given to ward residents, the cost of his cell phone and a dedicated home phone at his house with a monthly Spectrum Cable bill. They all magically came up to $1,200.
New to his December report were requests for reimbursements for mileage. Tax papers must assume that previously Johnson either didn’t drive around the ward or ate the expenses. During December he reported that he drove 717 miles on ward business — which is just over the distance from Cleveland to Atlanta — for which the city was charged $390 for his mileage expense. With a ward that is only 2.5 miles at its widest point and the average speed limit on city streets at 25mph, Johnson must have spent a lot of time in his car.
There is a move afoot for reduction of council. Those seeking signatures need only attach a picture of Ken Johnson to their clip boards. He can be their poster child.
If council reduction passes, outgoing members have no one to blame but themselves for their complicity in allowing Johnson’s flagrant abuse of the system. Johnson’s resignation from council in 2009 and reappointment by his collogues so that he could double dip and take his retirement benefits along with his council salary is a prime example of the good ole boy and girl network at City Council.
The Teflon Councilman of Steal will continue his $1200 a month expense account bonanza until someone in City council has the guts to speak up and stop the madness.
Perhaps Johnson should have listed more carefully to Kenny Roger’s iconic ballad “The Gambler,” which I paraphrase:
“On a warm summer evening on a train bound for Cleveland’s Ward 4
I met up with a Councilman with money on his mind
As we took turns a starin’ out the window at the poverty
Til greed overtook him and he began to spend.
You got to know when to hold’em
Know when to fold’em’
Know when to walk away
Know when not to run for reelection
So, if you don’t mind my sayin’, Ken, I can see you’re out of aces.
For a tank of your gasoline I’ll give you some advice.
You never count your expenses while you’re sittin’ at the council table.
There’ll be time enough for counting when the prosecutor and FBI are done.”
C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and treasurer of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.