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Mark Naymik Reports: Cleveland City Council member, two others under FBI investigation

The FBI is investigating longtime Cleveland Councilman Ken Johnson and two others with ties to City Hall.

CLEVELAND — The FBI is investigating longtime Cleveland Councilman Ken Johnson and two others with ties to City Hall, according to federal subpoenas obtained by 3News. The subpoenas date back more than a year, but include one filed by outgoing U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman in December, with documents due January 5th.

The FBI appears to be seeking information related to two issues involving Johnson: his use of the Cleveland City Council expenses dating back years; and federal money distributed from the city to the Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corp., a nonprofit aimed at redeveloping the Buckeye and Shaker Square neighborhoods. The nonprofit was shuttered after Cleveland's community development department cut it off from federal funds because the nonprofit failed to produce an audit. 

The subpoenas seek city records on two others, Garnell Jamison, who is Johnson’s council aide and former employee of the nonprofit; and Ozell Dobbins, a former Cleveland commissioner and employee.

A series of articles written by former cleveland.com columnist Mark Naymik, now a 3News reporter, detailed Johnson’s use of the expense account and showed he received more the $160,000 in reimbursement with limited documentation. The articles also showed that the Buckeye nonprofit could not account for some federal money earmarked to it by Johnson. At least one Johnson family member worked at the nonprofit, as dis Jamison and Dobbins, the stories showed.

Mayor Frank Jackson's administration, which includes top officials close to Johnson, was slow to react to problems at the nonprofit, which the city was responsible for monitoring. It allowed the nonprofit to seek reimbursement from the city's pool of federal money - known as neighborhood block grant money - despite failing to show a clean audit and other paperwork. The city eventually cut it off completely. 

Johnson was using his expense account money to pay a city employee who once lived in Johnson's household. For more than a decade, Johnson submitted a receipt from the employee that simple stated "ward services." 

Cleveland City Council was also slow to react but eventually stopped the payments and demanded that Johnson provide better documentation for his expenses.  

Johnson said in a brief phone call that he was unaware of the FBI probe and subpoenas. He and the others have not been charged.

Council President Kevin J. Kelley, Majority Leader Phyllis E. Cleveland, and Majority Whip Blaine A. Griffin released a joint statement Thursday saying, "We are aware of inquiries being made to the City by law enforcement agencies into a member of Cleveland City Council and we are monitoring the situation."

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Editor's Note: The below story aired on January 11, 2020