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Kenneth Johnson, Ward 4 councilman, arrested and charged with federal program theft

2 others indicted for federal theft
Kenneth Johnson.jpg
Posted at 9:55 AM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 23:11:32-05

CLEVELAND — Cleveland City Councilman Kenneth Johnson, his longtime assistant Garnell Jamison and the 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.

“These individuals are accused of developing and implementing schemes to defraud hardworking American federal taxpayers,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric B. Smith. “Citizens should have confidence that their elected representatives are ethical and law abiding, not enriching themselves through graft and deceit. The FBI will continue to root out fraudsters that portray themselves as civil servants and hold them accountable.”

Johnson, 74, who oversees Ward 4, which includes the Buckeye Shaker area, was arrested Tuesday by agents from the Cleveland Division of the FBI after a federal grand jury handed down a 15-count indictment charging Johnson with violations with federal program theft.

In federal court this afternoon, Johnson, Jamison and Hopkins pleaded not guilty, with bond set at $20,000.

Ward 4 councilman Kenneth Johnson's Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood home.

The indictment
The indictment alleges that for over eight years, Johnson, Jamison, Robert Fitzpatrick, who worked for the City of Cleveland Division of Recreation, and others conspired together to commit federal program theft by inducing the city to issue reimbursement checks from the city's general fund to Johnson for Ward 4 maintenance expenses that were never actually performed.

Each member of the city council had an expense account that allowed members to be reimbursed for up to $1,200 in eligible council-related expenses such as in-home or rental office expenses, the indictment stated.

Based on the council reimbursement packets mentioned in the indictment, between January 2010 and October 2018, the city issued $1,200 monthly expense reimbursement checks to Johnson, totaling approximately $127,000. Each check from the city was deposited into his bank account.

The indictment states that Johnson and Jamison tasked Fitzpatrick with performing maintenance services in Ward 4, such as cutting grass, removing snow and checking on properties, but was never paid. He stopped performing these tasks after the initial six weeks but continued to receive his salary from the city.

It is alleged by authorities that Jamison had Fitzpatrick regularly sign timesheets to reflect hours for services he performed, even though he did not actually perform them after the initial six weeks.

Furthermore, while executive director of the Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corporation (BSSDC) from December 2012 to around March 2018, Hopkins signed no less than approximately $50,000 in BSSDC checks issued to third-parties.

The checks were later deposited or transferred into the bank accounts held or controlled by Johnson, the indictment alleges.

Federal law prohibits any person, or family of a person, who was an employee, agent, consultant, officer or elected official of the BSSDC or the city, from personally benefiting from the federal community development funds.

"Unfortunately, as alleged in this indictment, we see well over $100,000 directed to accounts controlled by Mr. Johnson and that money, we do not believe, went in any way to benefit Ward 4," said Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan.

Johnson is charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit federal program theft, six counts of federal program theft, five counts of aiding and assisting in preparation of false tax returns, one count of tampering with a witness and one count of falsification of records in a federal investigation.

Jamison, 61, of Cleveland is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit federal program theft, two counts of federal program theft, five counts of aiding and assisting in preparation of false tax returns, one count of tampering with a witness and one count of falsification of records in a federal investigation.

Hopkins, 57, of Cleveland Heights, is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit federal program theft and three counts of federal program theft.

Fitzpatrick was charged for his role in the scheme and pleaded guilty on February 8, 2021.

“The allegations set forth in today’s indictment detail the exploitation of public office for personal gain,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Brennan. “Such conduct may bring about a temporary financial benefit for those involved, but it harms the public’s confidence in its elected officials. Where an elected official is alleged to have disregarded their oath and obligations, the public should remain confident that we will not disregard ours. Allegations of public corruption will be thoroughly investigated and brought before the court for a final resolution.”

Johnson was first elected to city council in 1980. During his tenure of more than three decades, he championed a number of commercial and retail developments in his East Side ward. A rec center in the city is named in his honor.

Brennan said she hopes the indictments send a clear, simple message to elected officials.

"We are not going to turn a blind eye and let public money or those in the public become victims to alleged, in this case, greed or fraud of their elected officials," said Brennan.

This morning, council president Kevin Kelley told fellow council members, "As you may know, there are media reports that councilman Ken Johnson and his assistant have been taken into custody. Council will take necessary steps to ensure that the citizens of Ward 4 receive the representation and service that they are entitled to."

On Tuesday afternoon, Kelley removed Johnson as chair of the Municipal Services and Properties Committee, which oversees Cleveland’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Properties, and replaced him with councilman Kevin Bishop, a member of the committee.

“We have to make sure that the chairman of each committee and the council in general is acting with the highest ethical standards," Kelley said.

“For the good of Ward 4 and the good a Cleveland City Council, i would hope the councilman would consider resigning.”

"I'm concerned about the representation residents of Ward 4 will receive if he doesn't step down."

“If that means hiring a temporary ombudsman, if that means doing some sort of additional outreach, we’re going to do that.”

Deborah Gray, Ward 4 executive precinct committee member, told News 5 the charges leveled against Johnson are another indication change is needed.

“He should step-down, and someone should be appointed to the position," Gray said. "The people are now kind of relieved to know that change is coming.”

“It’s very upsetting to me and the people of Ward 4, because we’ve been without leadership for many, many years.”

Council does not have the authority to remove members. That action must be undertaken by the state, or Johnson must resign, which is what mayoral candidate Justin Bibb called on Johnson to do shortly after the news broke this morning.

“This culture of corruption and complacency must end now. It’s time to clean up City Hall to restore public trust. Our residents deserve better,” Bibb said in a statement released Tuesday morning. “This has been going on for years and City Council never removed him. This is as much of an indictment of Kenn Johnson as it is on career politicians who continue to wheel and deal instead of prioritizing the needs of residents.

“As residents, we can’t keep looking the other way while our leaders fill their pockets at the expense of residents. Today, I am calling on Councilman Kenneth Johnson to resign, effective immediately, and remove himself from dealing with the public’s business.”

RELATED: Cleveland Councilman's federal indictment met with shock, anger in Ward 4

What happens next
If Johnson resigns, city council, per custom, will choose a successor. Normally, the outgoing councilperson selects their own successor, and that selection is rubber-stamped by council. It remains to be seen if that tradition would hold under these circumstances.