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FRIDAY, Jan. 9 — Joan Jackson Johnson suspects a “witch hunt” is brewing against her at City Hall.
Jackson Johnson, the director of Lansing’s Human Relations and Community Services Department since 2006, was placed on paid leave yesterday evening after officials said they found “issues with contracts” that they say warranted those findings to be reported to law enforcement.
Jackson Johnson contends the city has made a mistake.
“I’m pissed off,” she told City Pulse today. “I have not taken anybody’s money. There is nothing financial going on. I’ve been told there’s a conflict of interest with my positions in different organizations. I was working on that. After a while, you have to think they’re on a witch hunt against me. I’m not sure I really understand anything.”
The City Attorney’s Office recently launched a forensic audit to examine transactions and contracts tied to Jackson Johnson’s department, officials said. As a result of those undisclosed findings, city officials were “obligated” to refer the situation to local, state and federal authorities — and place Jackson Johnson on leave.
In the meantime, Mayor Andy Schor’s administration is keeping details at a minimum, citing personnel confidentiality. Schor also declined to respond to Jackson Johnson’s allegations of a “witch hunt.”
“The city has full confidence in the HRCS team to continue to provide the necessary support and services to those in need in the city of Lansing,” according to a statement released from Schor’s office yesterday afternoon.
Jackson Johnson said her recent departure was triggered by a “conflict of interest” reportedly alleged by City Attorney Jim Smiertka over her involvement with the nonprofit One Church One Family. Jackson Johnson registered the nonprofit in 2008 and has long served as its chairwoman before she resigned at the end of 2019.
“I was told I couldn’t be involved in both entities, but there was no financial impropriety going on,” Jackson Johnson said. “I needed to divorce myself from that organization given its ties to the city, and I was working on that. I didn’t want to dissolve the organization. We’ve been trying to find other people to take on these roles.”
Smiertka didn’t return calls. It’s still unclear where the findings of his audit were sent. Spokespeople for the Ingham County Prosecutor’s office and the office of the Michigan Attorney General were unaware of any reports about Jackson Johnson and confirmed that no related criminal investigations were ongoing.
According to state records, One Church One Family was launched in 2008 as a nonprofit to help provide housing to those in need. With financial support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city of Lansing, it also helped operate a “rapid housing” program for local families.
One grant application shows the rehousing program received a $259,181 federal grant in 2017 and had again requested the same amount in 2018. Records show the nonprofit, as facilitator of the program, also netted at least one $10,000 grant from the city. The stated goal: provide housing for at least 34 Ingham County families.
The city charter defines a conflict of interest as an avenue for a city employee to derive “any income or benefit, directly or indirectly, from a contract with the city or from any city action.” Employees are asked to report any alleged conflicts on an annual basis. If one exists, employees are barred from commingling those related affairs.
A boilerplate affidavit that Jackson Johnson was required to file last year noted that she (and her immediate family) isn’t involved in any organization other than the city in which she generates more than $2,500 in annual income. She also said she hadn’t received more than $500 in gifts nor had any other apparent conflict to disclose.
One Church One Family owns nine homes and has helped more than a dozen local families through matching grants and the capture of various federal housing funds, Jackson Johnson said. The full extent of the city’s financial ties to the nonprofit aren’t clear. An open records request for more details hasn’t been fulfilled.
Jackson Johnson, however, maintains that city coffers have not been used to support her organization at all.
“The city doesn’t provide any funding,” Jackson Johnson said. “I don’t understand the process, and unfortunately, nobody has laid out anything specific. This really seems like a witch hunt. I’ve been working on getting everything in line before this whole thing happened, and I’m disappointed in how it was handled.”
Jackson Johnson said city officials also recently took issue with her post on the board of directors for Capital Area Community Services and the Tri-County Office on Aging. Both local entities receive at least some form of financial support from the city in exchange for doling out various community services in and around Lansing.
Tri-County Office on Aging Director Marion Owen said she was unaware of any perceived conflict of interest tied to Jackson Johnson’s service on the board, noting her volunteer position is designed to be as a representative for the city of Lansing. Calls to Capital Area Community Services officials were not immediately returned.
Lansing City Council’s Committee of the Whole meets Monday for a closed session to discuss an undisclosed personnel issue — presumably Jackson Johnson’s recent departure. While on administrative leave, Chief Labor Negotiator Nicholas Tate will temporarily fill Jackson Johnson’s role as the director of the human resources department.
Jackson Johnson was hired by former Mayor Virg Bernero and retained by Schor’s administration. Last year, she earned an annual salary of $129,289. A spokesperson for Schor’s office said internal department procedures will be reviewed during her absence.
Bernero offered nothing but praise as the situation continues to unfold.
“Joan is a phenomenal human being who embodies the spirit of love thy neighbor,” he said. “She has worked tirelessly on behalf of the least among us. Where there is difficulty, where there is adversity, where there is misery, you will find Joan with her shoulder to the wheel, trying to make things better. Joan sees people that are invisible to others. She believes everyone counts. She made me a better mayor and a better person.”
Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous coverage and additional details as they become available.