CLEVELAND — The federal indictment of Cleveland City Councilman Kenneth Johnson, one of the longest-serving members of council in the city's history, sent shockwaves of disbelief, anger, and sadness through Ward 4 on Tuesday as many of his constituents are left wondering what the future holds.
Johnson, 74, along with his longtime assistant Garnell Jamison and former head of the Buckeye Shaker Development Corporation, John Hopkins, have been indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to commit federal program theft, according to court documents. Johnson was indicted on 15 counts, including conspiracy to commit theft from a federal program, aiding and assisting in the preparation and filing of false tax returns, falsifying records during a federal investigation, and witness tampering.
Johnson, who was first elected in 1980, is accused of filing false monthly expense reports over a period of eight years, amounting to more than $127,000. He pleaded not guilty on Tuesday afternoon.
Resident Michael Yates, who says he came to know Johnson through his early days in city politics, had trouble finding the words to describe his shock.
"I think it's pretty terrible. Ken has always been one that is accessible to the youth. He has always reached out to young people," Yates said. "Just knowing him through the years not only as a councilman but as a friend, it's just terrible to see what's happened to him. It doesn't speak well for public service. Public service right now is being frowned upon by the world."
Councilman Johnson, whose name is emblazoned on a city recreation center and a trailer parked in the lot out front, has been known for his work with the city's youth and his passion for the city's recreation centers. Up until Tuesday afternoon, Johnson had served as the chairman of the City Council's Municipal Services and Properties Committee, which oversees the city's parks and properties, among other tasks. Council President Kevin Kelley announced he was stripping Councilman Johnson of that chairmanship.
Ward 2 Councilmember Kevin Bishop was appointed as the new chairman.
"Council will take necessary steps to ensure that the citizens of Ward 4 receive the representation and service that they are entitled to." Council President Kelley said in a statement.
The reactions from Johnson's constituents on Tuesday ranged from sadness to anger and betrayal.
"It saddens my heart that he would take that prestigious position and do something that is not good for the people, the neighborhood," said resident Lawanna "Sky" Matthews. "You're supposed to be a responsible leader to allow us to depend on you to do the right thing. Then you do this? It's a mark against the city but I don't think it's a mark against the people. To know that all this hard-earned money that we're out here making and he goes in the wrong direction by someone that we're trusting, that's very hard to swallow."
Ward 4 resident Bryan Burgess said he would often speak to Councilman Johnson whenever he'd come by to visit his housing complex near Shaker Square. Burgess said the allegations against Johnson are like being "stabbed in the heart."
"I'm hurt behind it because the guy has done so much for us in my building. To hear that, it's really hurting," Burgess said. "I'm kind of shocked and hurt at the same time. We're all humans. We all make mistakes. Hopefully, somehow he can rectify the thing that he's done and get back to his life."
Johnson's future on council remains unclear. Because the City Council lacks the authority to remove him, it would be up to Attorney General Dave Yost to file to have Johnson removed. A spokesperson for Mayor Frank Jackson declined to comment, instead referring all questions to the FBI.