CLEVELAND - Cleveland Councilman Jeff Johnson is facing a legal challenge that questions whether he can hold office despite his conviction for extortion.
The challenge filed this week is believed to be the first-ever, despite Johnson serving on council for nearly a decade since leaving prison.
Earlier this year, Johnson announced he is running for mayor against incumbent Frank Jackson.
The challenge came in a letter delivered Wednesday to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. Edwin Davila, a former city of Cleveland assistant law director, cites an Ohio law that bars anyone convicted of bribery from holding public office.
Davila is asking the board to remove Johnson from office.
“It is my position that Councilman Johnson unlawfully holds his current office and will unlawfully hold the position of mayor of the city of Cleveland, if he is mistakenly elected to that position,” Davila wrote.
A spokesman for the elections board said the request will be forwarded for review by county prosecutors.
Johnson, meanwhile, became incensed when questioned Wednesday by WKYC Channel 3 News inside City Hall.
“I’m not doing this. It’s a lie,” Johnson said, pulling off a microphone before an interview was to begin.
He then changed his mind.
“OK, let’s cover this.”
Johnson contends he legally holds office and that the challenge is an attack. He says his conviction was expunged in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in 2007 and was unopposed by former Prosecutor Bill Mason.
Furthermore, he contends his conviction in U.S. District Court was for extortion, not bribery.
Still, Johnson conceded he’s never sought a legal opinion on his ability to hold office after his conviction. And until Wednesday, no one has challenged his legal standing.
“I have never, ever, been confronted with this lie. Never,” Johnson told Channel 3 News. “The expungement means that I’m allowed to hold office. I wouldn’t be allowed on council if it were illegal.”
Johnson was on City Council from 1984 to 1990 before becoming an Ohio senator. He was indicted and convicted in 1998 of violating the Hobbs Act, a federal statute. A jury found he accepted $17,000 from a businessman in exchange for favors and influence.
Johnson served about a year in federal prison before returning to Cleveland to rehabilitate a once-promising political future.
He won back his law license. He was hired by then-Mayor Jane Campbell as an aide, and he eventually ran and won a seat on City Council. He’s been in office eight years.
Apparently, no political opponent or rival ever sought a legal opinion on Johnson’s ability to hold office after his conviction. Prosecutor Mike O’Malley declined comment but said through a spokesman that any challenges would be researched and an opinion would be forwarded to the elections board.
The board could dismiss the claim, or find Johnson is ineligible to hold office. Appeals and lawsuits could follow.
Davila points to Ohio law that states “A public servant…convicted of bribery is forever disqualified from holding any public office.”
He also points to a 1999 Ohio Supreme Court decision in State v. Bissantz:
“Thus, we conclude that a conviction of bribery in office may be expunged… 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…”
He also pointed out that Johnson’s expungement came through a state court. The conviction came in federal court and remains unsealed. He said Johnson’s argument that extortion is not bribery is wrong.
“One man’s bribery is another man’s extortion,” he said.
Davila, who lives in Stark County and owns property in Cleveland, lost his law license after he was convicted in federal court of money laundering. He said he’s lodging the challenge on behalf of Clevelanders and not any political challengers.
“One cannot help but wonder what kind of mischief [Johnson] intends to do if elected to the office of mayor given his past behavior,” Davila said. “Cleveland deserves better from its public officials…”
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