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Analysis: An effort to oust Mitch Johnson fails, for now

by Jordan Green

The past few weeks in Greensboro city hall have had the feel of a slow-motion coup as two newly elected council members seized on a sensitive memo released by a local newspaper openly hostile to the city manager to call for his firing. Despite a rumor campaign that a majority of the council was intent on pushing Mitchell Johnson out, only two votes could be mustered for his termination after the manufactured crisis forced Mayor Yvonne Johnson to call a special meeting on Valentine’s Day.

The council voted 7-2 to direct Johnson to develop an action plan within 30 days to address a host of issues relative to his management of the city, none of them directly tied to his handling of the resignation of former Chief David Wray, the so-called “black book” or the police department. Councilman Robbie Perkins had moved that Johnson be retained, seconded by Councilwoman Goldie Wells. Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw introduced a substitute motion that he be fired, seconded by Councilwoman Trudy Wade. Councilman Mike Barber made the compromise motion, which gained the support of the entire council with the exception of Rakestraw and Wade.

“I really think the issue’s been defined by misinformation,” Perkins said afterwards. “The question I’ve got is why hasn’t David Wray filed a suit against the city? In my opinion based on what I’ve heard in executive session – I can’t tell you what we’ve discussed and I know that’s going to make David Wray’s supporters furious – I can tell you that Mitchell Johnson was correct in his handling of the situation, in my opinion.”

A series of articles written by Randolph County author Jerry Bledsoe and published in The Rhinoceros Times that is now up to its 47th installment has vividly explored allegations of corruption and sexual immorality on the part of black police officers, while a local blog called The Troublemaker has published the same material in a more rough hewn, though no less sensational, fashion. Simultaneously, a series of editorials and openly slanted reports by Rhinoceros Times Editor John Hammer have increasingly characterized city government as being in shambles, creating an implacable demand for Johnson’s ouster among a sizable segment of the community.

The newspaper and blogger Ben Holder, who maintains The Troublemaker blog have succeeded in embarrassing the city by accusing Johnson of evading public records requests, and then publishing sensitive documents as the city negotiates the competing tugs of transparency, personnel laws and prosecutorial integrity.

“It appears to me that the reality of the situation is that people outside of the city of Greensboro have complete access to all the same documentation that the city of Greensboro does regarding these matters,” He added in a defensive public statement on Feb. 8 after the News & Record confirmed the authenticity of a document written by Detective Scott Sanders that the city had previously claimed did not exist. “They could release the contents of all of the audio recordings of Detective Sanders, they could release the actual CAD printouts and they could release statements from Detective Sanders regarding who he reported to and what he reported to them. They could do this immediately if they truly desire ‘transparency.’ The city of Greensboro cannot because the liability and the directives of state and federal attorney generals in addition to the various attorneys representing the many players in this drama.”

Mayor Yvonne Johnson said she remains convinced that Mitchell Johnson’s disciplinary action against Wray was appropriate.

“I think some of the various law enforcement groups made complaints, and he felt like he had to do some kind of investigation and he had a conversation with Chief Wray, and asked about the ‘black book’ and Wray said, ‘No, as I understand the evidence, there wasn’t any document like that,'” the mayor said. “Mitchell has not said it was racial. He said, ‘He lied to me.’ I’ve said, ‘If you’re going to have lineups, that’s fine. Why not have a variety of different kinds of lineups? He’s never said it was racially motivated. He said, ‘It might have been a legitimate document, but then why was it hid from me?'”

Johnson said the fact that a broad range of police personnel came forward in the summer and fall of 2005 to express concerns about Wray’s management of the department is evidence that the transparency so emphasized in the last election was already in play

“Across the country, many police departments have problems,” she said. “They’re a very closed group. God knows we need them for protection, but they’re a very closed group. They like to take care of things themselves. We talk about openness and transparency. That’s what happened.”

One candidate for council, a former Guilford County commissioner, made her feelings about the Wray affair plain to voters.

“I was really concerned when Chief Wray was locked out of his office,” Mary Rakestraw said last August. “That was to me appalling. That bothered me so much. I know I was not the only one that was just taken by surprise to see that a city manager would behave like that.” She added that in her experience as a government employee “you certainly didn’t do those kinds of things. You talk to people. To me, there had to be another route. That was embarrassing. It certainly wasn’t promoting good PR for Greensboro.”

Rakestraw won The Rhinoceros Times’ endorsement, as did Trudy Wade, whose campaign against District 5 incumbent Sandy Carmany, a staunch Johnson supporter, took a somewhat more subtle tack.

“Wade understands that there is a huge problem in the manager’s office that is causing tremendous problems in the Police Department and she wants the opportunity to get to the bottom of it and solve the problem,” wrote Editor John Hammer. David Wray, who does not live in Greensboro, won the newspaper’s nod for mayor.

Soon after the new council was sworn in, the city manager began receiving requests to review the controversial photographic lineup that has been nicknamed the “black book.”

“I want to make it clear that I have received phone calls from two members of the present Greensboro City Council referenc[ing] their interest in wanting to see the so-called ‘black book,'” wrote Senior Deputy Attorney General James J. Coman in a Jan. 14 e-mail to Martin Erwin, a lawyer who serves as outside counsel to the city. “I declined to make the ‘black book’ available because the original is in the possession of the SBI and is intended to be used as evidence at the criminal trial of at least one of the defendants.”

Coman added that when the State Bureau of Investigation launched its investigation of the police department in June 2006, “I spoke with the City Manager, the City Attorney and the leadership of the Greensboro Police Department and asked them not to release information or items of potential evidence into the public domain that could compromise the investigation or jeopardize the rights of those being investigated.”

Afterwards, council members were allowed to review the so-called “black book” in closed session, and later Sanders’ lawyer, Seth Cohen, complained that the council had not been shown other information that contextualized the photographic lineup.

On Jan. 18, Margaret Moffett Banks, a reporter at the News & Record, filed a public records request for “the two-page memo Tom Fox and Scott Sanders wrote summarizing the rationale behind the ‘black book.'”

The city responded by e-mail to Banks on Feb. 5: “We have researched and are not aware of the existence of the alleged two-page memo summarizing the rationale behind the black book. Consequently, there is no public record in response to your request.”

The next day the document requested by Banks was posted on The Troublemaker blog, and shortly afterwards it was published in The Rhinoceros Times.

The memo, written by Detective Scott Sanders to Deputy Chief Randall Brady on July 8, 2005 was confirmed as authentic by the police department. Johnson’s adversaries contend that the memo provides evidence that Sanders used photographic lineups as legitimate investigative tools rather than as a sinister means of implicating black officers in criminal activity.

“In another recent and unrelated criminal investigation, a victim/witness was shown photographic line-ups,” Sanders wrote. “The victim gave a description of a black male in uniform and working for the Greensboro Police Department. I searched records and compiled a list of all black male police officers who were on duty in uniform at the time frame that the victim/witness said that this incident occurred. This resulted in nineteen separate photographic line-ups being created…. This is specific to this case and was not shown at any other time.”

Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw reportedly told the News & Record on Feb. 8 that she had asked Johnson whether there was additional information that went along with the “black book” and was told that there was not. “I feel that I have been lied to,” she is quoted as saying. “I feel that Mitch needs to be dismissed on this issue. This is outrageous. I cannot tolerate this behavior any longer.”

At the outset, Mayor Johnson expressed confidence that the city’s failure to produce the memo was an honest mistake.

“My opinion is we could have said, ‘Give me some more description,'” she said at the time. “I really don’t believe they were trying to hide anything. We’ve got to work on that because we don’t want to give the appearance that we’re hiding anything.”

Mitchell Johnson said in his public statement that “clearly, I was not aware of the document because it was, in fact, a ‘smoking gun’ regarding the issue of Chief Wray’s lack of forthrightness regarding this issue. Had I known about it I would have requested its release much sooner.”

Mitchell Johnson said the document makes it clear that Brady knew about the document described as the “black book” earlier than previously known and speculated that Wray and his deputy chief discussed the photographic lineup in July or August 2005. For his part, the city manager said he was not made aware of the document until Nov. 16, when Brady handed it over to investigators with Risk Management Associates after it had been stored in the deputy chief’s car.

The city manager’s foes, in turn, have cited the July 2005 memo written by Sanders as an argument that no evidence exists that Sanders did anything wrong, neglecting to mention his indictment for obstruction of justice and other charges stemming from separate incidents. They note that the photographic lineup described in the memo included only 19 black male officers on duty at the time of an alleged sexual assault, the photographs of officers were placed randomly on a page with five other photographs, and the document was used “specific to this case only and was not shown any other time.”

The July 2005 memo also cites a second photographic lineup, and Sanders does not note the same restrictions relative to which officers’ photographs were included and when and to whom it was shown that have been attributed to the document that has come to be known as the “black book.” The second lineup has received scant attention from Johnson’s critics.

Developed following the arrest of drug dealer Elton Turnbull, the second lineup was reportedly used by Sanders during a 2003 interview with Bridgett Ekwensi, a Turnbull associate, during his investigation of Lt. James Hinson’s 1997 bachelor party. “She described and named at least three black male employees of the Greensboro Police Department as the ones being involved in this incident,” Sanders wrote. “Only two of the six were of interest to the case, four of the six line-ups were fillers, meaning that of those four I had no previous knowledge that any of the four were related to this case specifically. However, one of the four was identified as being present at this incident. This method of interjecting the fill in line-ups is a check and balance used to ensure the truthfulness of the victim/witness that is being shown the line-ups.”

Still stung three days after Rakestraw’s call for his termination was first published in the News & Record, Mitchell Johnson noted an irony in the mounting howl for transparency regarding the so-called “black book” and the Sanders investigation. Cohen, the lawyer who represents Sanders and Brady, in addition to The Rhinoceros Times, has in the past threatened the city with prosecution for releasing personnel information.

“It is my understanding that the City has already or will in the future release information gathered during its investigation of Randall Brady and Scott Sanders,” Cohen wrote in a Feb. 17, 2007 letter to Erwin, one of the lawyers retained by the city. “More specifically, it is my understanding the City will release certain tape recordings. I certainly hope this is not true.

“If this information is released without a court order,” the letter continues, “and it is determined that the information violates NCGS 160A-168, as I believe it does, we will ask the District Attorney to prosecute those responsible for the release.”

Within a week of the day the city’s fumbled public records request was exposed, the council held a special meeting to consider Johnson’s continued employment. In an editorial entitled “City Teeters on Brink of A Total Collapse” that was published in The Rhinoceros Times on the same day as the special meeting, Editor Hammer wrote, “The latest word on Wednesday is that there are four votes to fire Mitch Johnson – Councilmembers Rakestraw, Mike Barber, Sandra Anderson Groat and Trudy Wade.” To underscore the un-sourced report, the newspaper published a cartoon by Geof Brooks in the same issue depicting Rakestraw, Wade, Barber and Sandra Anderson Groat holding a banner declaring “Fire Mitch,” with Rakestraw imploring, “C’mon Zack” as a diminutive Matheny bowed under former Mayor Jim Melvin’s imposing form and whimpered, “Daddy says I’m not allowed.”

Hammer did not return a phone call over the weekend requesting comment about his role in the crisis.

“I don’t know where John got his information, but I certainly think Zack can make up his own mind,” said Perkins, the member of the current council who has been Johnson’s most vocal supporter. “There are a lot of constituents saying what they think we should do. My experience is that Jim Melvin gives advice to people who ask him. He is more interested in developing leaders for the city of Greensboro than telling them what to do. So far in his tenure I’ve been very impressed by Zack’s ability to make up his own mind.”

In the same editorial, Hammer urged Mayor Johnson to cut the city manager loose, suggesting his management style could compromise the viability of the city’s first black mayoralty.

“The member of the council who should be voting to fire Mitch Johnson is Mayor Yvonne Johnson,” he wrote. “She is Greensboro’s first black mayor, in the year when we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Greensboro’s founding. This should be a historic year. So far, Yvonne Johnson’s tenure as mayor is only marked by the number of special and emergency meetings called to deal with problems caused by City Manager Mitch Johnson.”

For her part, the mayor suggested she’s approaching the public clamor for Mitchell Johnson’s removal with equanimity.

“I got a lot of e-mails about this Mitchell Johnson thing,” she said. “I got more e-mails that said he was a man of integrity and please don’t be pushed into doing something. I got more of those than ‘fire Mitchell Johnson.’

“In time we will have a clearer picture of how that pans out,” she added. “People have to do their own homework and come to their own conclusions, and you have to do what you think is right and just. That’s the only thing I can do and sleep at night.”

Meanwhile, in its most recent issue, The Rhinoceros Times used a second memo purportedly written by Sanders to further taunt Johnson, headlining the story, “Memogate II May End Mitch-Management.”

“The sad news for Johnson and his minions is that we have lots of documents and we can play this game for months,” Hammer wrote.

The Jan. 10, 2006 memo from Sanders to Sgt. Tom Fox, who also has been indicted, was published simultaneously by The Troublemaker blog. Entitled “Summary of Investigation Involving [name redacted] Alleging Sexual Assault By An Unknown Greensboro Police Officer,” it makes no reference to the date of the incident in question although Sanders is quoted as saying that he “began investigating the incident, using the approximate date, time, description, black male late 20’s early 30’s dark skin nice looking wearing a uniform driving a marked car.” The memo continues, with the detective describing himself in third person: “Sanders used [computer assisted dispatch] query for the officers that were on duty fitting that description wearing uniform and operating a marked police car and came up with 19 possible suspects.”

Below the signature, the author’s name is spelled “Sander.”

Several commenters at The Troublemaker blog questioned the authenticity of the memo, which was typed on city of Greensboro letterhead rather than standard police department letterhead. One wrote, “His freakin’ name is spelled wrong on the memo. It’s Sanders with an ‘s’ not Sander; somebody’s monkeyed with this one. Even the least bright of those among us would catch spelling our own name incorrectly.”

The origin of the documents cited in The Rhinoceros Times and The Troublemaker blog has been a source of discussion and speculation.

“Hammer keeps releasing these memos week by week that are supposedly hidden,” Perkins said. “Where is he getting them from? If he has a whole room of documents, why doesn’t he just release them at one time?

“The city’s got personnel laws and regulations it’s got to abide by,” he continued. “It’s a very difficult thing to provide elected officials and the public with the information that they need and protect the rights of individuals that are facing some kind of court action. It’s hard to tell what to do. There’s not a definite standard; it’s a lot of gray area.”

Johnson said Sunday that his “ongoing assumption is that someone that Cohen represents – Brady, Sanders or The Rhinoceros Times has access to any document we have access to.” The city manager Johnson added that the city checked with Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson to see whether the person responsible for leaking personnel and investigative documents could be prosecuted. “We were told that given the workload of the office spending the time and effort looking into it was not worth it.”

In portraying the city as barely functional, Hammer hinted at his newspaper’s role in the deepening malaise.

“The Police Department, once one of the best in the South, is in desperate need of help,” he wrote in the most recent issue. “The legal department gives legal advice that is often wrong and seems much more intent on protecting the city manager and certain employees than on doing what is best for the city. Because the City Legal Department is in such shambles, the city is constantly hiring outside attorneys.”

He continued, “The scuttlebutt at city hall is not much work is getting done because the city manager, who is a micromanager, spends all his time working on these legal and Rhino issues.”

While The Rhinoceros Times, Rakestraw and Wray’s supporter hammer away at the city for lack of transparency, Perkins suggested that the other side has not held itself to the same standard. The “thing you have to ask about Wray is why hasn’t he subjected himself to interviews with people like you,” he said. “He’s only talked to Bledsoe and through his lawyer. You’ve got a room full of inquisitive journalists and it could be pretty interesting.”

During the Valentine’s Day special meeting, the vaunted “fire Mitch” faction of Rakestraw, Wade, Anderson Groat and Barber atrophied into a two-member minority. Afterwards, Barber said council’s discussion about Johnson’s job performance had “remarkably little” to do with the black book or David Wray. The councilman said he faults Johnson for a repeated inability to communicate effectively and for a plan submitted by city staff to increase business license fees last year that was voted down by council after landlords and other members of the real estate lobby turned out in force to protest it.

“There are police issues that have been dealt with and are very important,” he said, “but we’re dealing with things that are much broader: public trust, communication and customer service. Cities weather crises. Durham seems to have one every other day. If you have those three things as a foundation you can manage it.”

In addition to the communications department, the council ordered Johnson to address issues brewing crises in the parks and recreation department and the fire department. Barber said a lawsuit is pending against the city related to the parks and recreation department. And earlier this month, union local president Richard O’Brien told the council that the fire department was beset by problems of nepotism, low morale and wasteful spending related to reorganization and the impending retirement of Chief Johnny Teeters.

“I think he’s capable of managing the city of Greensboro,” Perkins said. “I think the overall health of the organization is good. I don’t see anything on that list that should be particularly difficult to handle, most of which he’s already been working on.”

Perkins added that he thinks Johnson probably needs to improve his communication with council, allocate more resources to the communications department and get more support at the assistant manager level.

His colleague, Mike Barber, suggested that the city’s handling of information requests from the press was at least as important as its responsiveness to elected officials.

“We know that in one particular area we have mountains of documents,” he said. “I have access to Mount Everest, but I will not climb it.”

Asked if he believes Johnson is hiding sensitive documents from council members, Barber responded, “Don’t reach over the dais and punch me, but our ineffectiveness in managing documents and communication makes us all question that. And that’s what we’re going to fix.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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