Few people in the Capital region are unfamiliar with Joan Jackson Johnson, the former director of Lansing’s Human Relations and Community Services Department and a highly regarded advocate for the poor, homeless and downtrodden. Last month, she was suspended by Mayor Andy Schor amid allegations of impropriety concerning her administration of city grant funds. She retired from her position shortly thereafter.
Through the years, Johnson has received countless accolades for her selfless efforts to improve the lives of the least among us. By all appearances, she is a woman of unimpeachable integrity who commands the respect and admiration of nearly everyone who knows her. That’s why it was shocking, even unbelievable, when local media began reporting a story that suggested Johnson is something less than the heroic figure she appears to be.
The insinuation that she had engaged in serious misconduct, perhaps even a crime, cast an immediate pall over her reputation and legacy. While a federal investigation of her alleged misdeeds is underway, we think it is a good time to step back and take a closer look at what is known about the case and what could and should have been done to prevent it from happening in the first place.
Based on a forensic audit released by the city, Johnson clearly had multiple, longstanding conflicts of interest between her position as a city official and her role as an officer of several non-profit organizations that provide services to families, children and homeless individuals. As a city official she approved the expenditure of public funds, then managed the use of those funds by the nonprofits she controlled. This is a recipe for trouble because it opens the door to potential misuse of funds or even embezzlement.
Whether Johnson personally benefited from this arrangement, or if the funds were spent as intended on helping the less fortunate in our community, will be determined by the findings of the investigation. In either case, it’s clear that Johnson’s administration of the funds lacked appropriate internal controls and oversight that would have brought her conflicts to light much sooner.
It is important to note that a conflict of interest is not, in and of itself, a crime, provided it is addressed transparently and resolved in a way that protects the public interest. At-Large Council members Kathy Dunbar and Carol Wood, for example, both lead local nonprofits that receive funding from the city. When the budgets for those expenditures come before the Council, both routinely disclose their roles in the nonprofit and recuse themselves from voting. Yet city money still flows to the organizations they lead, and they are free to manage those funds as part of their day-to-day business operations.
The key difference between these examples and Johnson’s case is that she failed to recuse herself from the decision to disburse funds to her own nonprofit organizations, then failed to disclose her role in the organizations. These lapses in judgment are certainly regrettable, and may even rise to the level of a misdemeanor. However, no conclusive evidence has been presented to suggest that Johnson actually misused the funds or that she personally benefited from them.
Based on local media coverage, one could easily jump to the conclusion that she did. More than one news outlet gravely intoned that Johnson had committed serious “misconduct” and “misappropriation” of public funds. Yet the audit report and related addendums obtained by City Pulse are inconclusive on this point. Nowhere in the documents is any claim that Johnson absconded with city funds. The reports note that it is a possibility, but that further investigation is needed to make a final determination.
Our intent is certainly not to vindicate Johnson; her fate will be determined by the ongoing investigation, which presumably will examine the flow of funds between the city, her nonprofits, and potentially Johnson herself. Until that investigation is complete, and unless a charge of criminal wrongdoing is ultimately brought against her, we remind the public and media that she is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Perhaps equally important, this unfortunate episode suggests that the city’s internal procedures for ferreting out conflicts of interest are flawed, if not broken. The current system is largely based on the voluntary disclosure of conflicts, an “honor system” if you will, that requires city employees and elected officials to be transparent about business dealings that may influence their official roles. The City Attorney’s Office is principally responsible for vetting city contracts and the recipients of public funds to flush out obvious conflicts before they become a problem. While this review appears to have happened early on in Johnson’s tenure, her conflicts were permitted to continue for many years without additional scrutiny and corrective action. This constitutes a clear failure by two consecutive city administrations that could easily have been remedied and perhaps could have prevented Johnson from getting into hot water in the first place.
While the investigation continues, we suggest Mayor Schor and his administration conduct a critical review of the policies and procedures that are intended to discover and resolve conflicts of interest and to implement the changes needed.
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