CLEVELAND — Jury selection in the trial of longtime Cleveland city councilman Kenneth Johnson and Johnson's executive assistant Garnell Jamison began Monday in federal court.
The pair is accused of conspiring to steal federal funds and divert the money to bank accounts controlled by Johnson.
The councilman, who has represented Cleveland's Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood since 1980, was suspended following his February indictment and arrest.
Prosecutors said Johnson was part of two schemes that steered more than $170,000 of federal money into accounts controlled by Johnson instead of helping Ward 4.
Prosecutors said one of the schemes involved submitting fake timesheets showing city recreation manager Robert Fitzpatrck performed ward services.
In reality, investigators said Fitzpatrick never received a dime of the money and only performed about six weeks of services, not the eight years of work the timesheets show.
Fitzpatrick pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy in the case.
Prosecutors said Johnson's longtime executive assistant, Jamison, worked with the councilman to collect Fitzpatrick's signatures on the forms.
But in a court filing, Jamison's attorney said his client "denies that he manufactured or falsified receipts," and wrote, "at no point during his many years of service was he informed or warned by any employee or administrator of the City that the procedure was improper.”
In a separate court filing, Johnson's attorney wrote, “the Defense will prove that the tasks assigned Fitzpatrick, including cutting grass, snow removal, checking on properties, and renovating properties were performed by Fitzpatrick, which is documented.”
The 75-year-old Johnson is also accused of working with the former Executive Director of the Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corporation to create fraudulent timesheets that led to $50,000 in payments to Johnson's family members or court-appointment guardians of the councilman's.
But Johnson's attorney told the court that the councilman “had no involvement whatsoever in the distribution of Buckeye funds; those decisions were solely made by the Buckeye Board and the Executive Director John Hopkins.”
Hopkins pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy and federal program theft.
Johnson's attorney also denies his client ever intentionally defrauded the IRS by filing false tax returns as alleged by prosecutors.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors asked the court not to allow defense attorneys to claim that Johnson and Jamison's actions were "politics as usual at the City of Cleveland," and "that they were unfairly selected for prosecution."
Prosecutors, in their own filing with the court, wrote, "simply put the Defendants were charged because they committed crimes. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Jury selection is expected to wrap up Wednesday when opening statements in the trial are expected to begin.