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Issue Date: February 1999 Issue


The Rise and Fall of Jeff Johnson

On Feb. 5, former Ohio Senator Jeffrey Johnson will be sentenced for crimes of extortion. In the aftermath of this incredible political crash-and-burn, we examine his life’s story.
Michael Drexler
Every morning in the 1970s, young Jeffrey Johnson made his way to Margaret Spellacy Junior High School in Collinwood. The route required him to walk over a small bridge — and ensured encounters with hostile white youths, who regularly beat him up. It was typical of his school days in the racially tense neighborhood of the time.

But Johnson took that road every day — unsure and ready, frightened and defiant. He’d try first to run. When fists flew, he’d fight as best he could, one on one, one on two, three, more. Sometimes he lost, earning only bruises, cuts and anger.

Johnson never missed school because of those conflicts — when he was younger, he’d played with white kids. The complexities of life were just beginning to emerge during those years. Recently, as he took a long, detailed look at his life, he said he’d liked school, though he was no great student then. Those daily scrapes inspired him to change his nature. One day, he vowed, Jeffrey Johnson would be formidable, popular, powerful — a man who would command respect.


 

Johnson was a classic late bloomer, a shy kid who eventually soared. The boy who started out as an average student and so-so athlete with a pathological fear of speaking to crowds eventually re-created himself as a football star at Collinwood High School. Later, at Kent State University, Johnson was an honors student, newspaper columnist, president of Black United Students and all-around Big Man on Campus. In his senior year, he was named homecoming king. Four years after graduation, there he was, even more powerful, as the Cleveland City councilman representing Glenville. And in 1990, he hit the state political stage, moving to the Ohio Senate, where he represented the 330,000 people of Glenville and Collinwood. Minority party whip since 1996, Johnson also led the Senate/House caucus of black state legislators. Now he was truly formidable, powerful. Now he commanded unquestioned respect.

Last year, as many had expected, Johnson decided to run for the 11th Congressional District seat vacated by retiring Rep. Louis Stokes. It was Johnson’s carefully created moment, one that he’d nurtured for 15 years. It was “the one I had been counting on,” he recalled recently.

On March 4, 1998, within a couple of weeks of announcing his candidacy, Johnson was hit with a federal indictment on four counts of extortion and two counts of wire fraud. Felonies. Following a two-year FBI sting investigation, federal prosecutors determined that Johnson had violated the Hobbs Act, which outlaws taking money from political constituents for political favors. They claimed he had helped Aly Hamed, an Arab grocer in Johnson’s 21st state Senate district, obtain coveted liquor permits, lottery licenses, food-stamp permits and licenses to accept food vouchers from poor women and children in exchange for money — a total of $17,000.

Video and audio tapes showed Johnson pressing for money, Johnson talking crudely, Johnson carefully wording reminders to Hamed that he wouldn’t get more help unless he came up with more money, Johnson instructing Hamed to change campaign contributions into personal checks. The tapes also showed Johnson saying his office was not for sale, that he didn’t play dirty politics.

“Ridiculous,” Johnson said of the charges for which he was later convicted.

Hamed himself was tainted. He had pleaded guilty in 1995 to food-stamp fraud and income tax violations. But in return for cooperating with the FBI, he received five months in a halfway house instead of three years in prison. To make things even more confusing, there seemed to have been an intragovernmental fight over the Johnson case — news reports said that the FBI was protecting Hamed from other federal prosecution to keep the case going.

Johnson’s defense attorney, Gerald Messerman, called the whole matter “an interagency battle.”

Johnson considered halting his congressional race, but said he’d been swayed to fight on by an old girlfriend. Cleveland native Halle Berry has remained close to Johnson since becoming a top actress, model and co-star in the recent Warren Beatty film Bulworth, a movie about cynicism vs. idealism in politics. She even came to Cleveland last March to support his candidacy.

Johnson recalls Berry's words: “Look at all you’ve dreamed of. No matter what it looks like, don’t let them run you out of the race.” He says her next statement sticks with him to this day and still keeps him going: “A person can live with defeat, but one cannot live with regret.”

So Johnson pressed on. The prosecution pressed on. Hamed, the star witness, said, “The truth will come out.”

The trial began in early November in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Kathleen O’Malley. Sixteen days later, Johnson walked out of federal court a convicted felon.

The jury had bought neither his entrapment defense nor that he’d taken the money as a legitimate campaign contribution. No, they concluded. He had shaken a local grocer down to the tune of $17,000. He had used the great power of his state office in the service of personal greed. They convicted him on three of four federal extortion charges (he was acquitted of the charge that he’d solicited money in return for helping two businesses that were trying to get contracts to operate food-stamp centers in Cuyahoga County; a month earlier the two wire-fraud counts had been thrown out).

Johnson looked shaken, as if he had been slugged in the chest.

The prosecution had won big. Justice Department prosecutor Stephen Anthony — who handled the case with Daniel Butler — summed it up to the media: “It’s wrong for a public official like state Sen. Jeff Johnson to sell his influence.”

After 14 years in politics, the banner headline in the public psyche read: “Jeffrey Johnson, felon.” Suddenly, as if it had all been a dream, Johnson’s career was over. He was now part of the amnesia of history.

There is a stark contrast between what Johnson did with Hamed and the record of his almost decade and a half in public service. Put side by side, they seem wildly out of sync. His political fights had always been over issues, principles, public programs, the human dignity of his constituents — not over money in the roach-infested back room of a grocer with a rap sheet.

Considering his incredible political crash-and-burn at the height of a stellar career, Johnson’s life’s story suddenly seems important. It is a kind of Shakespearean tragedy. It’s the story of a man who, as he approached his dream of national political office, let his power go to his head. To some, it’s the story of a public servant who fought for the disenfranchised and the poor, for abused women and endangered children, but who let his ego grow unchecked. To others, it’s simply the story of another politician who sold his soul.

Due for sentencing on Feb. 5, Johnson faces the end of a career, the loss of his license to practice law and a potential prison stay of 20 years (though it’s likely he’ll receive a lighter sentence).

Here is the rise and fall of a political star.


 

The drama that is Johnson’s life began as the modem civil rights era dawned, as a young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was beginning to organize marches and make speeches.

Johnson was born in Cleveland in 1958, the son of postal workers. Until he was 16, he lived in Collinwood on the racially mixed Darley Avenue.

His mother, Bette, was a postal clerk. His father, David, was a postal carrier who also served as a dance-hall policeman. Johnson had two sisters, Caprice and Dana, and two older sisters from his dad’s previous marriage, Joyce and Diane. He was the baby boy, adored for his good looks and easy manner. He attended Henry W. Longfellow Elementary School, just down the street. “I was shy,” Johnson recalls. “I would hide behind my mom’s apron strings.”

“I remember where I was the night Dr. King was assassinated,” he says. “I was 10. It is burned in my memory. I was working on a science project with my father in the dining room. It was a model of a human head, where you could see inside. We were working on that, and [the news] flashed on TV. And I remember asking Dad, ‘Was he a medical doctor?’ I didn’t even know. My life was so sheltered that I didn’t even remember. I didn’t remember who Dr. King was.”

His father says Johnson was a good kid who avoided trouble. Sports were everything, and Johnson’s role models were athletes. “They got the pretty girlfriends,” he says. “Sports gave me the self-esteem I needed at the time.”

At Margaret Spellacy Junior High School and Collinwood High School, Johnson experienced racial tension firsthand. The “Mason-Dixon Line” was East 152nd Street. The east side was white, the west black. Go to the east side, he explains, “you get your butt kicked.”

After his senior year at Collinwood, his parents divorced and Johnson moved to Glenville. After a short stint at John Carroll University, in January 1977 he transferred to Kent State University.

There, his life changed dramatically. He discovered that he could boost his self-esteem by building his intellect. He attended events hosted by the Department of Pan-African Studies, including appearances by civil rights activist Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni, and revered congressman Louis Stokes. Johnson read black history — Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglass. “That’s when I started to get a sense of where I’ve come from, which I didn’t get while I was in Cleveland schools.”

Everything began to come together for Johnson his junior year at KSU. He abandoned his dream of becoming a professional football player and considered a career in law — or maybe politics. He saw a flier for Black United Students (BUS), a group created to address the needs of black students at KSU, decided to run for a seat on its executive board and was elected. He started to accept new role models, he says:

Stokes, True and others became his heroes. Stokes even signed a photo for Johnson with the words “Aim High.”

Johnson continued to blossom. He successfully campaigned for BUS president. He wrote columns for the Daily Kent Stater. He was voted homecoming king. Looking back on how he changed after high school, Johnson says, “It’s not something I articulated to my parents, but I did have a slight inferiority complex based on my race. It wasn’t until I started studying black history that the inferiority complex was erased.”

His first political act covered by the school and professional press was race-based. Johnson organized a demonstration over the allegation that a coach had kicked a black player on the field. Johnson also accused the athletic staff of not allowing blacks to fully participate in games. He was already, in the first hours of his political career, controversial.

The student paper screamed that Johnson had “no hard, cold facts to back up his accusations. We do not doubt that racism exists on campus. We do, however, question Johnson’s motives behind so publicly making the accusations.”

That salvo stuck: Jeffrey Johnson, media hound.

When Johnson graduated in 1980, the United States Jaycees named him one of its “Ten Outstanding Young Americans.”


 

Back in Cleveland, Johnson began studying law at Case Western Reserve University and started hanging around with a young Cleveland City councilman representing Glenville named Michael R. White. White took Johnson under his wing. He was impressed with the young graduate, who scoured his neighborhood to put together community-pride programs.

In May 1984, the week Johnson gradated from law school, White asked him if he’d like to be councilman. Johnson jumped at the chance. When White took the place of retiring state Sen. M. Morris Jackson, he helped shepherd Johnson to City Council.

Soon after his appointment, Johnson became embroiled in high-profile, hot-button issues involving alleged police actions against blacks. The situation involved two shootings by Cleveland police and the accusation that Cleveland police chief William Hanton was indifferent to the rights of suspects. Johnson called for Hanton’s resignation.

He was challenged on the council floor by then-Ward 21 councilman John Zayak. “Jeff and I really went at it on the floor,” Zayak said in 1984. “At one point I got up and quoted from Martin Luther King Jr., saying that the ultimate thing that makes you a man is not where you stand in times of comfort and convenience, but where you stand in times of challenge and controversy. I said I’d stand in the middle of the controversy and stand up for the cops, ‘Because one of my constituents is right now in the hospital fighting for his life because he was shot,’ ” referring to a policeman wounded in a confrontation.

The audience at the council meeting applauded.

The quote stung Johnson. He stood, looked Zayak in the eye and replied, “I will not sit here and quantify hurt and despair. I feel for the police officer, but the issue I am talking about is the disproportionate number of blacks in police actions.”

More applause from onlookers. This was a bout. And Johnson liked the fight.

After the meeting, Zayak, a well-known police advocate, walked up to Johnson, whom he had never formally met, and said, “I was testing you. You’re tough.” They became friends.

Despite Johnson’s cockiness, he impressed the most famous of the local pols at the time. In 1984, then-Ward 12 councilman and former Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich, another idealist and no stranger to controversy, said of Johnson, “I can predict right now that someday he will be the mayor of Cleveland. I’ve noticed him becoming involved in major issues. He was out front on the issue of safety of school children. He has shown a real sensitivity to safety issues, which are paramount in the inner city. He’s an activist. And that’s good.”

Then-council president George Forbes’ praise was a bit more muted:

“He’s one of the better ones I’ve seen in a long time,” he said at the time. “He seems to understand the issues and articulate solutions to them. He has good instincts.”

Johnson’s instincts continued to draw him to charged issues, including police use of deadly force and crimes against children. In the wake of the killings of two 14-year-old girls in and near his ward, Johnson said, “Crime against schoolchildren is probably the most prevalent issue of 1985. This must be dealt with now more than ever.” He started a Glenville program called “Watch the Children,” in which volunteers stood on street corners during school hours. Due in large part to Johnson’s efforts, the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit of the Cleveland Police Department was formed in September 1985.

Johnson was beginning to feel comfortable using his clout. When WDMT-FM put up a billboard showing a headless youth with a boom box on his shoulder, he made the station take it down. When WZAK-FM put up sexually explicit billboards, he had those taken down, too, and forced the station to give scholarships to high school graduates.

But by 1986, Johnson’s relationship with Forbes had cooled. Johnson was combative in council. Too ambitious, not respectful enough.

One frigid, snowless night in 1987, he went to the mat with Forbes. At a council meeting, he said, “Mr. Chairman, I need to know when you will release money for my project” — the construction of Glenville Plaza. Forbes rose and walked out. Johnson chased him down the hall, calling out that Forbes was not “man enough” to deal with him. Forbes turned around and gave Johnson an icy look. “One of those George Forbes looks,” Johnson recalls. Somebody stepped between the two.

There was a quick attempt at a truce. Black council members called a quiet meeting at Vel’s Party Center. Tension built. At one point, Johnson remembers, Forbes picked up a chair in anger. Johnson ducked, thinking he was about to get clobbered.

Though Forbes never actually threw the chair, “one of the legs hit me on the shoulder,” Johnson recalls with a grin. “I went after him, and his bodyguards stepped in.” The two were separated. Eventually, news of the confrontation leaked out.

Tyrone Bolden, then a 10-year council veteran, said at the time that Johnson had taken “family business” — issues involving black council members — out of the back room and to the media. Other members criticized Johnson for his arrogance, for being a media hound, even of being an “Uncle Tom” for his coalition, which was building racial politics based on the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Johnson was earning a reputation as a loose cannon. He insisted that George Forbes was orchestrating the end of his political career.

Johnson also spent a great deal of energy bemoaning the back-room way things ran in Cleveland. He criticized “The Game” and Forbes’ tyranny. At the time, Kucinich described the essentials for participating in the Cleveland political arena: “It all comes down to who you are. City Hall is ... a testing of what people are made of. Every day there is a deal, a chance every day to sell your soul. George and Jeff are in the same game.”

In 1988, Johnson ran for yet a higher office: Cuyahoga County commissioner. Though defeated, he received an impressive 44 percent of the vote against veteran Republican Virgil Brown. While preparing for his campaign, Johnson met a Palestinian immigrant, a grocer named Aly Hamed, through other Arab-American friends. A county commissioner is a powerful person for a grocer to know. Hamed knew that. Johnson knew, too.


 

In 1989, White was elected mayor. In 1990, Johnson replaced him in the state Senate, the place Johnson says he learned how “to be a statesman.”

In Columbus, Johnson continued his crusade on behalf of the disenfranchised. He attacked the way the criminal justice system treated prisoners, advocating more rehabilitation. He was instrumental in the 1997 rescue of the financially stricken Central State University. He sponsored a law that created the Ohio Infant Health Commission.

But he wanted to go to Congress. When Stokes announced he would not seek re-election, Johnson made his move. He figured it would take about $250,000 to run. He was up against Cuyahoga County prosecutor Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the Rev. Marvin McMickle and six others, all of whom lacked his bedrock of legislative experience. “I always believed if I continued to work for certain issues I believed in and were in sync with what the community wanted — better police, development, safer schools — that politically I would be able to develop and aspire to go to Congress,” he says.

Almost three weeks after he made his announcement, he was indicted for corruption in office. The fall began, with Johnson protesting all the way as the tectonic plates of his career began to rumble ominously.


 

On Nov. 4, Johnson’s trial began. In the preceding days, local clergy had demonstrated in support of Johnson. He’d held a fundraiser at the Sixth Street Under jazz club attended by such prominent political figures as state Sen. Eric Fingerhut and council members Fannie Lewis and C.J. Prentiss. Supporters had buzzed about politics being the reason behind the initial Johnson investigation.

Now, FBI agent Wallace Sines Jr. took the stand. The FBI had suspected that Johnson might be involved in “soliciting money for official favors,” he said, and had requested Aly Hamed’s cooperation in getting information. Hamed had recorded conversations with Johnson between February 1994 and April 1996, according to Sines, and had received assistance for his cooperation.

Johnson’s lawyer, Messerman, pointed out that Hamed had already been in trouble with the law.

The FBI had coached Hamed on how to handle Johnson. Tapes showed Johnson taking the bait. Increasingly, he demanded money, sometimes angrily, threatening to stop helping Hamed.

When IRS agent Dan Dever took the stand, he told Messerman that Hamed had reportedly been involved in trafficking food stamps and WIC (Women, Infants and Children food program) licenses. Dever said that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had informed him that the public corruption investigation “took higher priority” than Hamed’s crimes.

On the stand, Hamed testified that without a food-stamp license, his business “wouldn’t be able to exist” and that “he couldn’t have a WIC contract either.” It was beneficial to know a potential commissioner or a state senator like Johnson, who could help Hamed get those essential licenses, which are granted by a state board.

Justice Department prosecutor Anthony summed things up for the jury:

“This is a case about a man who simply got greedy, a man who, the evidence showed you, held his office out for sale for money in the form of campaign contributions and what were called loans.” He spoke of Johnson turning campaign contributions into personal loans, of him boasting of his power, about saying of then-Ohio Attorney General Lee Fisher, “He’s my man.”

Anthony said that to help Hamed get licenses, Johnson was in effect acting as his personal lawyer. Johnson was “charging a fee for exerting his office’s power and his political influence.” The prosecutor asked the jury to use common sense in evaluating the evidence.

In his summary, Messerman asked, “Why have you not heard from one single law-abiding citizen of those 330,000 who would come in here and say, ‘I asked Jeffrey Johnson to do something for me. He said he would do it only for money’? Not one out of 330,000. You have only Aly Hamed. Not one.”

Messerman then asked why no law-abiding citizen had claimed Johnson was corrupt as a City Council member years before. He concluded that the case was about an “unholy alliance” between Hamed and authorities, about “the government run amok” and “a despicable human being” — Hamed — “wholly unworthy of belief,” who had shaped the tapes they’d heard. “Reject the tapes,” Messerman urged.

The jury instead rejected Johnson. “I’m hurt,” Johnson said on the steps of the federal court building that day, “especially for my family.”

We are pleased with the verdict,” Anthony says of the conviction. “The law makes it clear that a public official may not sell his influence, and we believe the jury decision was fair and correct.” Johnson’s prosecution was a good example of a federal authority’s use of an aspect of the Hobbs Act, Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Watney explains, which is commonly used against state and local officials who commit extortion “under color of official right.”

Johnson’s old foe Forbes had another take on the outcome, commenting to TV reporters the day of the verdict that Johnson was part of a long line of black politicians cut down in their prime by unfair prosecution. Though Johnson was sometimes “obnoxious,” Forbes said, he wasn’t a crook.

On Dec. 10, reading from a prepared statement, Johnson announced that he would resign his Senate seat on Dec. 16. “My resignation is my way of removing the cloud that has been hanging over the Ohio Senate since my indictment this past March, and which was made worse three weeks ago by the guilty verdict.... Despite my belief in my innocence, I know I must take responsibility in having put myself in a position where my honesty has been brought into question. I simply chose the wrong person to associate with.”

In a December phone conversation, Johnson sounded as if he’d come to grips with his predicament. It was a dramatic departure from his defiant tone a few days after his conviction, when he’d said of his appeal, “We are going to battle.” From his Columbus apartment, he said that even if he loses his appeal, even if he cannot hold any public office again, “I can still work in my community.”

There was something about the way he spoke those words — they had a certain humbleness, a distinct lack of ego. He sounded like Jeffrey Johnson the idealist, the one from Kent State University, the young man who still has the photo of Louis Stokes that reads “Aim High.”

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