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Ken Johnson Suspended from Cleveland City Council After Indictment

a photo of Cleveland City councilman Ken Johnson
Nick Castele
Ken Johnson at a Cleveland City Council meeting in 2017.

Updated: 12:22 p.m., Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A special panel of three retired judges suspended Cleveland City Councilman Ken Johnson from office Tuesday, following a federal grand jury’s February indictment on corruption charges.

Johnson pleaded not guilty to charges that he stole federal program dollars and falsified expense reports.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost requested the suspension almost two months ago, per a procedure for the removal of local officials laid out in Ohio state law.

“Like oil and water – corruption and public service just don’t mix,” Yost said in a written statement released Tuesday. “A suspension from public office is the proper remedy until the charges of public corruption are resolved, which is what the court affirmed today.”

Johnson and his attorneys fought the suspension proceedings. In a March 12 legal filing, they wrote that the attorney general was making a decision that could instead be up to voters, with a recall.

“The Attorney General’s officiousness in protecting the public interest is what some may call paternalistic especially so, when the Attorney General’s office is substituting its judgment as to what is in the constituents’ best interest,” Johnson’s attorneys wrote. “Perhaps, the citizens of Cleveland should have the final say, if their votes truly count.”

Johnson’s attorneys wrote that their client had done nothing wrong, calling the allegations that he stole federal funds “baseless and without merit.” They also argued that he properly claimed reimbursements under council’s expense report rules. 

“During the course of Councilman Johnson’s long and venerable career, he has done numerous things for his Ward and has engaged in numerous ‘business related’ activities on a monthly basis that easily met the standard outlined in this Ordinance,” Johnson’s attorneys wrote in a legal filing. “Granted, he may have not kept perfect records, but his conduct was far from criminal. He was, and is, entitled to every reimbursement that he claimed.”

The arguments did not appear to sway the three-member commission.

“These numerous felony charges against Mr. Johnson go to the very nature of his elected position – they directly relate to Mr. Johnson’s service in public office and the authority he has in that office, and they allege abuse of that trusted position,” the former judges, who were appointed by Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor in March, wrote.

The commission preliminarily suspended Johnson on March 25, according to the panel’s report. Johnson and his attorneys contested that decision in an April 16 meeting. The panel handed down the final suspension April 20.

The members of the commission are retired Lake County Judge Joseph Gibson, retired Athens County Judge L. Alan Goldsberry and retired Franklin County Judge Guy L. Reece II.

A Cuyahoga County Probate Court judge will be tasked with naming a replacement for Johnson, according to a press release from Cleveland City Council.

“Council respects the commission’s decision,” council’s Tuesday morning release said. “We will work with the Probate Court to find a qualified replacement for Councilmember Johnson to represent the best interests of the residents of Ward 4.”

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.

Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.