Former nonprofit says he kept relatives of Cleveland Councilor Kenneth Johnson because of financial problems

Hopkins said he felt pressure to keep the men working on a grounds crew that did landscaping, even though the move violated federal law and Cleveland conflict-of-interest regulations. The men continued working and took bonuses while the nonprofit was in a financial freefall.

Story Highlights:

  • John Hopkins, the former executive director of the Buckeye Shaker Square Economic Development Corp., told a federal jury that Johnson promised to find federal money to keep the neighborhood agency afloat.

  • “It was never stated from the councilman, but I knew it was important to keep them,” Hopkins said. “If you don’t have support from your councilman, it would be a death knell for your agency.”

Hopkins’ testimony before U.S. District Judge John Adams and a jury came at the end of the first week of Johnson’s trial on 15 charges of theft-related offenses. Testimony is expected to continue next week, and the case could go to the jury by Friday.

He is on trial with his longtime aide, Garnell Jamison, 63, who faces 11 charges, including conspiracy and tax charges. Prosecutors accused the men of falsifying City Council expense reports so that Johnson could obtain the maximum monthly amount, $1,200, from January 2010 to October 2018, earning him $127,200.

Johnson, 75, has been a member of the Cleveland City Council since 1980. His charges include two counts of conspiracy to commit theft from a federal program, tampering with a witness, aiding and assisting in the preparation of false tax returns and falsifying records during an investigation.

On Friday, Hopkins testified in what prosecutors called a second scheme to defraud the city. Prosecutors said Hopkins worked with Johnson to steer at least $100,000 from a federal block grant to three people who handled landscaping work for the development corporation.

One of the three is Johnson’s child, Kenneth Jr. The councilman is the guardian of the other two. About $50,000 ended up in the councilman’s bank account, prosecutors allege. The younger Johnson testified Wednesday that his father, not him, signed paychecks from the development corporation.

The councilman signed checks for work that his son supposedly performed when the younger Johnson worked out of state, according to testimony. City regulations and federal law prevent relatives from earning money from block grants. The development corporation was an independent nonprofit that used federal block grants for neighborhood projects. The city obtained the federal dollars and distributed them to the nonprofit, and the elder Johnson worked closely with the organization.

Hopkins testified that he told the councilman that he had financial problems, including trouble meeting payroll, a drain that prosecutors allege stemmed partly from carrying Johnson’s son and the wards, as well as Jamison on the payroll. At first, Hopkins paid the landscaping crew with money from other accounts. Later, he said, he paid for them from a program that included federal money.

“I said, ‘Hey, we’re having some problems with cash flow,” Hopkins said. He said Johnson claimed that he would seek out more block grant funds to help meet payroll. Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Gould asked Hopkins why he didn’t drop Johnson’s relatives. Hopkins said Johnson would tell him, “I’ll find you money.”

Also Friday, prosecutors attacked Johnson’s taxes, as witnesses testified that Johnson overinflated his deductions. They cited two vehicles that he donated to Our Lady of the Wayside in 2017 and 2018. He estimated one 1975 Buick LeSabre was valued at $36,000, while he placed the other at $43,000. Kenneth Voigt, who worked for years on the car donation program with the Avon nonprofit, estimated the actual values were $1,200 each.

The development corporation suffered from severe financial problems that went beyond the landscaping work, Watson said, including it spending money on a theater restoration project that never took hold. The nonprofit closed in 2019. Myron Watson, Johnson’s defense attorney, said Hopkins — not Johnson — led the development corporation and made the decisions. If Hopkins had wanted to, he could dismiss Johnson’s relatives at the first sign of trouble.

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