Was Jon Johnson’s fall a result of hubris?
30th July 2012 · 0 Comments
By Christopher Tidmore
Councilman Jon Johnson’s ignominious resignation from the New Orleans City Council, amidst guilty pleas of embezzlement of Federal SBA funds for his 2007 State Senate bid, is not as surprising given the former Senator’s perspectives on personal profit from government work.
During his final term in the State Senate, Johnson sponsored a measure ostensibly to bail out the conversion of the World Trade Center into a hotel. The man who had won the bid, political insider Larry Sisung, had garnered the contract by promising not to use a dollar of public money.
Within two years, Sisung was clamoring for legislative help, saying that in the post-September 11th environment, his project was impossible without a TIF or Tax Inducement Financing. Essentially, Sisung asked the legislature to pledge the future state taxes derived from the hotel as a means to getting loans to finish the hotel.
These public private partnerships were hardly unusual. What did turn heads was that Sisung had himself partnered with a series of minority contractors that seemed to have offered little practical financial aid or hotel expertise. One of these was pediatrician Angela Barthe.
Barthe had one qualification, though. She was the girlfriend, and later wife, of Sen. Jon Johnson, the legislator sponsoring Sisung’s bill.
When asked by The Louisiana Weekly if he saw a conflict in managing a bill that, if successful, would make his girlfriend the part owner of a multi-million dollar hotel, underwritten mainly by public funds, Johnson replied, “Why shouldn’t Angela be able to benefit?”
“But, you don’t see how this looks? You don’t see a conflict of interest?” the author responded.
“None. Not at all,” Johnson said, ending the conversation.
Even the jaded electorate of New Orleans East and West Bank Jefferson thought Johnson had stepped over a proverbial line. The conflict of interest was used effectively by Ann Duplessis in her defeat of Johnson in his re-election bid.
Returning to elective office then became something of an obsession for the former State Senator. Four years later, he attempted a rematch against Duplessis, coming within 300 votes of defeating her.
When Cynthia Willard Lewis was term-limited out of her District E Council Seat, Johnson made a second, and more successful bit at redemption. With the former incumbent’s help, he succeeded beating Rep. Austin Badon, and pledged to be an advocate for his Eastern and Ninth Ward constituents. But, the compromises of 2007 caught up with him.
In his effort to fund his Senatorial rematch, Johnson falsely funneled some $16,000 from the Ninth Ward Housing Development Corporation, a non-profit with which he was involved, to his campaign account from a restoration project of T.J. Semmes Elementary School at 1008 Jourdan Ave. Under pressure, he also confessed to conspiring with a contractor to deceiving the Small Business Administration on some $150,000 Johnson had received to fix his home, but had used for other purposes.
What was fascinating, is that in even confessing wrong-doing, Johnson sought to justify his actions, “Believing I had done nothing wrong and to the contrary having large sums of my personal money and having devoted thousands of volunteer hours to these two charitable organizations, I requested a meeting with U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. While they acknowledged the positive contributions I have made, they were able to show me documentation where on two occasions I converted federal FEMA funds totaling $13,000 to use in my 2007 senate campaign, and where I filed a false statement in connection with an SBA loan which I was seeking.”
Johnson acknowledged his “guilty,” but in the next breath justified the embezzlement with the words “my many civic activities and my years of honest service to my city and state outweigh my transgressions” and that the “actions in question took place during the years I was a private citizen and not serving in any public office or as an elected official.”
Johnson could spend the next two years in federal prison, but unlike other recent Councilmanic targets of the U.S. Attorney, such as Oliver Thomas who repented unreservedly, the District E member justified his actions to the end.
The major beneficiary of that unwillingness to be humbly chastened could be the man who narrowly lost to Johnson, State Rep. Austin Badon. When Badon abandoned his abortive Mayoral campaign to run for the District E seat two years ago, he justified his candidacy on opposing the “old politics of the city”. The charge against corruption did little to overcome anger at Badon’s support for conservative stands such as school vouchers and tougher criminal statutes that had alienated some of his liberal constituents.
Shortly after Johnson resigned, Badon became the first candidate to announce his bid for the District E Special election, scheduled for November 6, telling the Weekly, “I’m running for it because I want to restore dignity and honor to the position. I’m an honest person, a Christian person and we need someone with those values.”
Former interim Councilman Mike Darnell has also expressed interest. One person unlikely to run, however, is Cynthia Willard Lewis, who has so anxiously wished for a return to her old job, in running for the At-Large position thrice. She was the victim of a diabetic stroke just over a week ago.
“Doctors who are caring for Cynthia have projected her full and complete recovery,” the family said in a written statement. “Cynthia is of strong mind and faith, and she is focused exclusively at this time on her health and recovery.”
Although the statement said Willard-Lewis “is eager to return to full health, and someday soon continue her efforts to make our city a stronger and better place for all to live,” it seems unlikely she will be ready to face another campaign this fall, just months after losing a bid for an at-large seat to Stacy Head this spring.
The District E election primary will be on the same day as the Presidential race, and the Special election to replace Head in the District B seat, November 6, 2012. A runoff is scheduled four weeks later in early December.
Johnson’s forced resignation may also have one other unintended side effect. He championed, along with Cynthia Hedge Morrell, the amendment to the City Charter that would transform the way the At-large seats are elected. Currently, all run together, and any candidate who wins 25 percent of the vote is elected in the primary.
In a measure also going before the voters on Nov. 6, Johnson and Morrell propose to divide the race to elect two candidates into two separate sections.
Candidates would have to declare when they qualify which of the two seats they are seeking. In order to win, candidates would need to get more than 50 percent of the votes in a primary or a runoff. For the new method to be adopted, a majority of city voters will have to approve it in November.
The measure is popular amongst some African-American leaders, believing the 25 percent system has allowed the Caucasian minority to have a disproportionate influence, and has paved the way for white candidates to win the At-Large seats post-Katrina.
Advocates of the current electoral system, including the two present At-Large incumbents, note that Civil Rights groups have called for exactly this form of Proportional Representation voting in areas where African-Americans are in the electoral minority. They justify it as a means to elect Black candidates when Whites are in the majority. (Arguments to that effect have been used in Jefferson Parish, where the two sections are currently elected separately.)
To change the rules now that Blacks constitute a majority seems unfair, they maintain. Their opponents, including Hedge-Morrell, tell this newspaper “We want the same system used elsewhere.” Nothing more.
Amending the City Charter is difficult under the best of circumstances, though. With Johnson, the major advocate of the change silenced, the fear of some in the Black community is that his last political measure could be tarnished in the public mind as well.
This article was originally published in the July 30, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper