Cleveland Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson failed to make a big announcement in 2004. That was the year the then-58-year-old self-proclaimed single father became the father of twin sons. No baby showers. No cigars. No headlines announcing the blessed event.
Instead, Johnson waited until 2017 when he published the news in the winter and fall editions of his ward newsletter, The Southeast Press. The announcements to the public came in the form of articles entitled “Did You Know.” In both publications, Johnson is pictured with the boys. They are also pictured with him at his swearing-in for his most recent term in city council in the January 2018 edition.
Johnson explains the ex post facto disclosures this way: “Their mother is a pediatrician that travels (internationally) from disaster to disaster…The boys are here with me because their mother believes that the life of a councilman is more stable than that of her occupation.”
So why the hush-hush for more than a decade? Maybe because this is not Johnson’s first rodeo in terms of parenting. He told a Cuyahoga County Probate Court social worker in a 1997 interview that he has been divorced from his former wife Brenda for many years and obtained custody of their children in the divorce. But there is no record of a divorce in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court — Domestic Relations Division between a Kenneth L. Johnson — a lifelong Clevelander — and Brenda Johnson.
Public records and statements made by Johnson reveal that over the years, Johnson has been a father figure to multiple young men — in addition to the boys he claims who came into his custody as a result of the divorce. The Cuyahoga County Probate Court records show that between 1990 and 2016 Johnson was the guardian of eleven boys — some from as far away as Australia, the Marshall Islands, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. In at least four cases, after he was appointed guardian, he returned to the court and had the boys’ names changed to Johnson. Since the parents consented to all the court proceedings, they were all perfectly legal.
According to statements made by Johnson in court documents, in more than half of the guardianships the legal relationship evolved out of familial relations. Johnson signed documents stating that he was the uncle or great uncle, depending on which application you review, of three siblings from Australia. He stated he was the cousin of a boy from the Marshall Islands and the uncle of a boy from the Dominican Republic. Based on these international family ties, Ancestry.com would have to invoke Interpol to properly construct the Johnson family tree.
In the fall 2011 edition of Johnson’s Southwest Press, he explains that he went to Australia to study a sports program designed for aboriginal youths. He hoped to sponsor a similar program at Case Western Reserve. While there he met a 14-year-old aboriginal boy who wanted to come to America. Johnson said, “I’ll make it happen.” And that he did, bringing the youth and five other young Australians to Cleveland to experience some homegrown hospitality. How Johnson financed this program is unknown, but the minors stayed on the campus of Case Western during their visit.
In 2012, the young Aussie who originally asked Johnson about a trip to the U.S. became the subject of a guardianship proceeding that Johnson filed in the Cuyahoga County Probate Court. But from the original meeting in Australia to the time Johnson went to probate court, the relationship had changed from someone Johnson met at a sports program to Johnson being the boy’s uncle — although the boy states in an interview that uncle is a term of endearment in Australia when younger people address an adult. The boy’s two brothers subsequently joined him in Cleveland and Johnson became their guardian also — each time stating that he was the uncle and in one case the great uncle. The parents of the three Aussies consented to the granting of the guardianships, although their signatures are not notarized or otherwise authenticated.
Johnson told a probate court social worker in 1997 that he became friendly with a 14-year boy who was serving as a page at Cleveland City Council. As a result, the boy started spending time with Johnson’s family. When the boy developed serious health issues, Johnson volunteered to care for him since the mother worked nights as a security guard, and it was easier for Johnson to care for the boy. A month after he was appointed guardian, Johnson was back at probate court. That time he got the minor’s name changed to Johnson, with the consent of the mother. The problem is, Cleveland City Council has never had pages.
A person with that same name worked at the Kenneth L. Johnson Recreation Center last September when Plain Dealer reporter Mark Naymik raised questions of nepotism, since Johnson previously listed him as his son on forms filed with the editorial board of Cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer. Johnson denied any relationship to the employee.
In the early 1990s, Johnson became the guardian of two brothers, aged 17 and 11. The probate court sent a social worker out to Johnson’s home to investigate. The social worker found that Johnson could provide a good home for the boys but questioned the necessity of the guardianship since the children’s mother lived nearby and the boys shared their time between the two households. The court saw fit to grant the guardianship anyway. Later, with the consent of the boys’ mother, their names were changed to Johnson.
A person with that same name as one of the boys worked at the Kenneth Johnson Recreation Center in September 2018 and, as was the case with the former page, had been listed on documents as Johnson’s son. Someone with the same name is currently registered to vote at Johnson’s home address.
In basically all the cases of the boys that Johnson befriended — except the Aussies — statements made in court documents state that the mothers were struggling either financially or emotionally and the fathers were either deceased or absent, so Johnson stepped in to help, which is very generous on a councilman’s salary.
Currently, the biographical information on the city council’s website states that the councilman is the father of seven adult sons. Since the arrival of the twins in 2017, it appears that Johnson has not taken the time to request an update of the website. He’s probably too busy driving around his ward looking for vacant and abandoned houses.
For more information on guardianships go to the Cuyahoga County Probate Court’s website.
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.