Cleveland’s former law director contends Councilman Jeff Johnson is unlawfully holding office based on his federal convictions of nearly 20 years ago.
Subodh Chandra, who served as the city’s top attorney from 2002-2005, said a WKYC Channel 3 News investigation focusing on a legal challenge being lodged against Johnson accurately depicts state and federal laws.
Johnson, therefore, has been unlawfully serving on the council for eight years, Chandra said, and his election conflicts with an Ohio law that prohibits anyone convicted of bribery from ever holding political office.
“The state law makes it very clear that anyone convicted of bribery is forever barred from holding public office or public employment,” Chandra said. “It is my professional view that Jeff Johnson is not a Cleveland City Councilman.”
A challenge against Johnson – for both his council seat and his current mayoral bid – is set to be heard by the Cuyahoga County Elections Board on May 15.
Resident Edwin Davila filed the complaint last month and is expected to testify at the hearing. Johnson is also expected to attend and defend himself against the claims.
In an often-terse interview with WKYC Channel 3 News last month, Johnson contended that his 1998 conviction for violating the federal Hobbs Act was later expunged by a county judge in 2008.
Furthermore, he argues that his conviction amounted to extortion and not bribery.
“I didn’t get convicted of bribery. You should have checked that out,” Johnson said. “What I was convicted of was extortion. It wasn’t bribery. It’s two different things.
He added: “The expungement means that I’m allowed to hold office.”
“What you have to understand is that I’m an elected official right now for eight years. There’s no way I would be able to hold office as a councilman…I wouldn’t be in the council if it was illegal.”
But Chandra said that’s exactly the case. Johnson, then a state senator, was convicted of shaking down a local businessman for several thousand dollars in campaign contributions in exchange for Johnson’s political clout in obtaining a liquor license and other favors.
Johnson served a brief prison term and later regained his law license. He joined City Hall in 2002 as an aide to then-Mayor Jane Campbell.
For reasons that remain unclear, no one has ever contested Johnson’s legal ability to hold public office. Johnson concedes neither he nor the city has ever sought a legal determination on the law.
Chandra hadn’t either despite the fact that he became Campbell’s law director shortly after Johnson joined her staff.
“No one brought it to my attention,” Chandra said.
Just last month, after viewing the WKYC Channel 3 News report and Davila’s challenge to the elections board, Chandra said he researched case law. He said state laws contradict Johnson’s beliefs.
“Forever barred means forever barred. That expungement has no effect,” he said.
As for the extortion vs. bribery argument, Chandra said the law is equally clear.
“There’s no question. There can be no serious dispute that the conduct with which Jeff Johnson was convicted was extorting bribes,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling involving a Hobbs Act defendant, found a form of extortion to be the “rough equivalent of what we would now describe as 'taking a bribe.'
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in a separate political challenge that an officeholder may obtain an expungement for a bribery conviction. However, the sealing of the conviction does not supersede the person’s life-long exclusion from public office.
The case, involving Clermont County Commissioner Harold Bissantz, was decided in 1988. After being convicted of bribery, Bissantz twice sought election to public office. His bids were blocked based on the state’s bribery laws, which disqualify those convicted of bribery from ever holding office.
Justice J. Craig Wright wrote the unanimous decision:
“Thus, we conclude that a conviction of bribery in office may be expunged and in this case the trial court correctly held that Bissantz is entitled to expungement. However, we also conclude that..a person convicted of bribery in office … is forever barred from holding public office in this state, even where such conviction is subsequently expunged…”