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Trial begins for Cleveland councilman accused of defrauding city and feds

Kenneth Johnson.jpg
Posted at 5:09 PM, Jul 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-21 19:09:54-04

AKRON, Ohio — Prosecutors and the attorneys for Cleveland City Councilman Kenneth Johnson and his assistant Garnell Jamison gave their opening statements on Wednesday morning in federal court in Akron.

Johnson and Jamison are accused of conspiring to steal federal funds and divert the money to bank accounts controlled by Johnson.

RELATED: Jury selection begins in trial of Cleveland councilman Kenneth Johnson, accused of stealing federal funds

The prosecution's opening statement
Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Gould said the case boils down to two things: "money and manipulation."

Johnson has been a council member since 1980. Prosecutors painted Johnson as a scheming politician who was primarily concerned with lining his own pockets.

According to the prosecutors, Johnson concocted several schemes over the years to pocket reimbursement money for services never performed and to steal federal funds.

Prosecutors stated that between January 2010 and October 2018, Johnson submitted falsified paperwork to obtain a $1,200 reimbursement each month. Attorneys said that each councilperson is able to submit up to $1,200 each month for services performed that benefit their ward. In Johnson's case, no such services were ever done, they said.

Prosecutors for the case said Johnson abused a relationship he had with city recreation manager Robert Fitzpatrick in order to cheat the system out of more than one hundred $1,200 checks. Back in 2010, prosecutors said that Fitzpatrick performed around two months of work but was never paid for it. But Johnson's paperwork said Fitzpatrick continued to do work each month for years on end in order to get the $1,200 maximum allowed through city reimbursement.

Furthermore, prosecutors said Johnson conducted a scheme to steal federal grant money from the Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corporation.

According to prosecutors, evidence will be presented at trial showing that Johnson fraudulently had money paid out from BSSDC to a landscaping business under his control where relatives of his worked. When the city became aware of Johnson having family members do ward services, it tried to put a stop to it by having service providers that were performing work in the ward sign affidavits stating they were not related to Johnson. One such person related to Johnson, they said, filed false paperwork using a different name to hide their relationship.

Prosecutors state that Johnson went beyond bilking the city for money and the government for federal funds and also into the realm of the IRS.

They allege that tax forms filed by Johnson from 2014-18 "over-represented" the number and amount of deductions he made. Prosecutors also said he "underrepresented" his income and failed to report the $1,200 reimbursements he received each month.

One of the specific problems with the deductions prosecutors mentioned was a car donated to Our Lady of the Wayside that authorities said was valued "way to high."

Opening statement in Johnson's defense
Johnson's attorney, Myron Watson, used his opening statement to push back on accusations that Johnson was corrupt and asked the jury not to fall for the labeling and stereotypes of politicians.

Watson said the government wants to paint Johnson as someone who pillaged the Buckeye neighborhood, but evidence will show that is not the case.

Watson shared Johnson's resume and touched on how the councilman is a true public servant who "rolled up his sleeves" to help his constituents. Watson said Johnson is someone who worked for years to improve the lives of the people who live in his ward—citing the rec center named after Johnson as an example of his public service.

Watson also said that Johnson's relationship with Fitzpatrick needs to be looked at in the "proper context." Johnson has known Fitzpatrick since he was a teenager, when the councilman took him in and mentored him. He later put him through college and even helped him buy his first home, Watson said. Watson told the jury that Fitzpatrick was not taken advantage of, as the government wants them to believe.

As for the donated car, a 1975 Buick LeSabre, Watson said it was a classic vehicle that had its "value enhanced" by the city officials who used it.

In Jamison's defense
Defense counsel for Jamison said that while his client's case is tied to Johnson's, there are significant and distinct differences.

Jamison's attorney said that the government's accusation that Johnson and his client conspired together is not true. According to his attorney, Jamison had a trusting relationship with Johnson and did as he was told. Jamison was under the assumption that Johnson was doing everything in a proper way.

Jamison's attorney said that for the conspiracy charge to be accurate, there had to have been an agreement, and Jamison only carried out his official job duties.

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

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