Seriously, how did Kevin Johnson end up running Sacramento like his own personal fiefdom?

The Baffler, the magazine that published what remains the best article I’ve ever seen on the scam that is the internship economy (and which remains even more of a scam today, if anything), has just published a long article by the Sacramento News & Review’s Cosmo Garvin on the disaster that has been Kevin Johnson’s political career, highlighted by spending $300 million on a new Kings arena that will open this fall. (Okay, also highlighted by charges that he’s a serial sexual abuser/harasser. Or maybe that’s a lowlight. Or maybe they both are.) It also talks about the lawsuit that Mayor KJ filed against Garvin and the N&R over his public records requests for city emails, and includes one of the best nut grafs you’ll ever see:

The lawsuit, the arena, KJ’s talent for diverting public resources for private gain, even the sex-creep stuff: to me, these facts seem to hang together under a common theme. The guy has boundary issues.

This gets into an area that I’ve always been curious about, which is: Why is it that so many local politicians, once they get into office, behave so much like, you know, politicians? Individuals who might have seemed perfectly sane in private life suddenly start mouthing platitudes and kowtowing to the usual moneyed interests and carrying out policies that are the exact opposite of what they’d promised. It’s incredibly common and fairly creepy, and a big reason why so many Americans don’t trust politicians as a group, even as they keep voting for them based on their promises.

Some of this, no doubt, is due to the political system itself: If you want to get re-elected, you need to say certain things and suck up to certain donors and make sure your daughter goes to a politically acceptable school, and so on. But I suspect that there’s a self-weeding aspect here as well. Think about it: There are thousands of former NBA players, many of which could use their celebrity to run for mayor of some city; why KJ? He certainly doesn’t need the money, or the fame. It takes a very special combination of ego, need for attention, and yes, lack of boundaries to decide that you’re going to merge your city with your personal brand, and declare that anyone opposed to one is opposed to both. And then sue them.

Obviously, not every mayor in the U.S. has set up their own secret government or molested teenagers — KJ is clearly special at this. But I think there’s a particular draw for people like that to run for public office: Anyone who can put up with the pressures of the political spotlight is going to require some, er, special characteristics, and they’re not necessarily ones that make for good management of the public interest. KJ is, by all accounts, a dangerous loon, but the system that put him in charge of a major American city is the bigger concern.

Not that I have any solutions to propose. Other than to ban unpaid internships, because that shit is seriously unethical and illegal.

Sacramento TV station stunned to find new Kings arena hasn’t cured homelessness

I’ve never seen it myself since I don’t live in Sacramento, but my impression is that FOX40 is a pretty bad news station, prone to reporting crazy-ass rumors as if they were true. (Though you could say that for most local newscasts, I suppose.) Anyway, last night they went to report on the new downtown Kings arena, and found that, glory be, it hasn’t cured homelessness:

One downtown with two very different faces. The drive to revive Sacramento is evident in a state-of-the-art arena. But that effort is facing a troubling problem on the streets.

One downtown, there is hope for a rebirth of a city and emergence from the shadows. The other: where people feel hopeless, forgotten in the shadows.

“They could spend $500 million on a basketball court, but they won’t put out a dime to help the homeless people,” said Larry, who lives on the streets.

The struggle on the streets juxtaposed to a downtown on the cusp of a rebirth.

It goes on and on like that, and on the one hand, using the Kings arena as a hook to examine chronic homelessness (though the examination doesn’t get much past “it exists”) isn’t the worst thing in the world. But on the other, this report reveals how deeply messed up local development reporting can be.

The key is that word “rebirth.” In developer-speak, all too often parroted by local news reports, rebirth or revitalization or renaissance is what happens to neighborhoods when you build new stuff. And new stuff is new, and newness is supposed to fix everything, whether it’s lack of jobs or a strained city treasury or the team being a chaotic disaster or, apparently, homelessness. We built you a new basketball arena, poor people, why do you persist in not being able to afford homes?

This is, frankly, an insane way to report on anything. If you want to go out and talk about how having homeless people sleeping downtown is an embarrassment to the elected officials who are trying to sell Sacramento as all cleaned up now, go for it. But noting all the new construction taking place downtown and then asking “Will it work?”, as FOX 40 does, shows a stunning misunderstanding of what redevelopment is supposed to accomplish — or worse, is an implication that the only “revitalization” that counts is the kind that makes the homeless disappear to somewhere else. After all, the Olympics get away with it.

I don’t want to come down too hard on the FOX40 reporters, really I don’t. But if you’re going to be a journalist, it’s vitally important that you not only think about what you’re covering, but about how you’re covering it, and what assumptions go into the way you frame your story. This news item ends up telling one story in its text — “homelessness bad and intractable!” — and another in its subtext — “how much concrete do we have to pour in order to fix social problems?” Sometimes good journalism is less about finding the right answers than asking the right questions.

ESPN Kevin Johnson doc killed, was more awful even than you thought

On my Google calendar for next Tuesday night, there is a notation for “30 on 30 on Sacramento Kings,” which is the ESPN documentary that was scheduled to run on Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and his successful push to fund a new arena for the Kings. I was so looking forward to watching and commenting on some of the worst bits, but sadly this will now not happen, as ESPN has pulled the show’s airing after revelations that KJ may have molested teenagers and plotted to destroy the National Conference of Black Mayors and run his own secret private government in City Hall — most of which was public knowledge before they made the film, but better late than never, right?

In any event, we can all still point and laugh at the documentary even without seeing it, courtesy of Max Rivlin-Nadler of the New Republic, who got a screening copy and did plenty of pointing and laughing on his own:

Down In The Valley amounts to a 77-minute political advertisement for Johnson, a man who in 1995 paid a 15-year-old over $230,000 to keep quiet after she alleged that he had sexually abused her…

A narrator explains that this often-overlooked city would soon need to call on one of its own to save it. Cut to pictures of a young Kevin Johnson, playing baseball and basketball, and growing up on the rough side of town before developing into a world-famous basketball star.

This sounds Sharknado-level awful, and I’m more sorry than ever that it’s not going to be available for livetweeting.

And what about the Kings arena project, which is set up as Johnson’s finest hour?

The film focuses solely on Johnson for its final hour, letting him provide the play-by-play of the procedures involved in convincing the NBA to not let any new ownership move the team…

Completely missing from the film is any meaningful information about the cost of that new basketball arena. Johnson intentionally crafted the bill approving the arena to be immune to any public referendums, even though the public is on the hook for $226 million, almost half of the cost. Johnson, in his desire to keep the team in the city, convinced software tycoon Vivek Ranadivé to lead up an ownership group to buy out the Maloofs for a then-record $534 million. Johnson then got the city council to pass a spending bill that would avoid a public vote to pay for a new arena for the team, now assured that they would be staying. Down in the Valley mentions none of this.

ESPN, as Rivlin-Nadler notes, has a long history of being caught between its role as a news agency and its role as a network in the business of buying the rights to sporting events and using them to extract huge carriage fees from cable companies, and hasn’t always done the best to balance the two. So it’s not really surprising that ESPN green-lit Down in the Valley, nor that it got spooked and backed away from it at the last minute. I guess we should all just be glad that the network’s vacillation put its decision-making process on full display — and let at least a lucky few get a glimpse at the thing itself. The need to at least pretend to professionalism does have its benefits.

Kevin Johnson set up secret government, asked Kings, Republic for donations during arena and stadium push

If you regularly read this site’s coverage of the Sacramento Kings arena saga, you may have the impression that Sacramento mayor (and former NBA great) Kevin Johnson will stop at nothing to get what he wants, whether it’s assembling his own prospective team ownership groups or coming up with bizarro-named astroturf organizations. But now, according to a long exposé in Deadspin, it appears his ruthlessness is way, way more extensive than anyone ever realized. Among the lowlights:

  • Johnson tried to take over the National Conference of Black Mayors to use it for his own ends, then when that failed, ran it into bankruptcy and set up his own competing black mayors’ group.
  • When the Sacramento News & Review issued a public records request over the black mayors’ group scandal, Johnson sued the newspaper and his own city to block the release of emails from his office. That case is still pending.
  • In the latest twist, KJ took advocates for charter schools (the crusade he shares with his wife, “Waiting for Superman” antihero Michelle Rhee) and gave them fake City Hall titles so they could work on his behalf during the black mayors putsch.
  • On the sports venue front, Johnson solicited campaign donations from the owners of both the Kings and Republic F.C. while seeking to build a new basketball arena and new soccer stadium for those teams.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the bit about Johnson being accused of sexually molesting multiple teenagers back in the ’90s, which is old news but worth remembering both because there shouldn’t be a statute of limitations on remembering stuff like this, and because it involved amazing secret recordings like this one:

Girl: “Well, I was naked and you were naked, and it wasn’t a hug.”

K.J.: “Well, I felt that it was, you know, a hug, and you know, I didn’t, to be honest, remember if we were both naked at that time. That is the night at the guesthouse?”

Girl: “Yeah. … Why would I be upset if it was just a hug?”

K.J.: “Well, I said the hug was more intimate than it should have been. But I don’t believe I touched your private parts in those areas. And you did feel bad the next day and that’s why we talked about it.”

Girl: “Well, if it was just a hug, why were either one of us naked?”

K.J.: “Again, I didn’t recall us being a hundred percent naked.”

Deadspin illustrated its latest piece with an image of KJ with devil horns drawn on. The site is known for being a bit over the top, obviously, but in this case, it seems like they’ve got it just about right.

Sacramento says giving parking, billboards to Kings cost nothing, because they were just lying around

Testimony has begun in the Sacramento Kings arena hidden-subsidies lawsuit, and we’re already deep into “it depends on what ‘is’ is” territory:

[State assemblymember Kevin] McCarty said he felt the city should have told the public more about the dollar value of two other elements of that deal – several thousand underground parking spots the city agreed to let the Kings operate, and the right to build six billboards on city property…

[Assistant City Manager John] Dangberg said the city did not assign a value to those assets because, even if they are of value to the Kings, giving them away did not cost the city any money. He did acknowledge a potential “opportunity cost” on future revenues for the signboards.

Needless to say, Dangberg’s argument is what economists call “stupid” — there are any number of assets that a city could give away that don’t cost money yet that have significant value (unused land, taxes on projects that haven’t been built yet, the right to sell advertising space on the mayor’s suit jacket). Eye on Sacramento previously estimated the present value of the parking at $57.8 million, and the billboards at $18 million.

The court won’t be determining whether the city included hidden subsidies, though, but rather whether it committed fraud in doing so, which is a stickier legal wicket. In the court of public opinion, however, we are free to issue a verdict of liar, liar, pants on fire.

Lawsuit begins over Sacramento officials hiding tens of millions in Kings subsidies in plain sight

It’s time for another lawsuit to go to trial over the Sacramento Kings arena deal, because it’s been absolutely months since we’ve had one of those. This one charges that the deal is illegal because its backers lied about its costs:

Downtown residents Jim Cathcart and Julian Camacho and Tahoe Park community activist Isaac Gonzalez say the deal is a fraud, and they’re asking for a court order invalidating the subsidy. For the next two weeks in Sacramento Superior Court, they will press their claim that the mayor and people around him lied to the public about the true value of the arena subsidy.

Instead of holding the line during negotiations, they contend that city officials covertly agreed to the investors’ demands, larding up the deal with as much as $200 million worth of undisclosed “sweeteners,” such as the parking garage beneath Downtown Plaza.

“They gave stuff to the Kings, and they did it without full public disclosure,” Cathcart said. “It’s wrong, and it’s got to be exposed.”

The problem with this lawsuit is that, while Sacramento city officials certainly didn’t go out of their way to publicize all the public subsidies that the Kings owners would be getting, it was all right there in the term sheet, spelled out clearly enough that budget watchdogs could add up the costs for all to see. So this comes down to a lawsuit charging city officials with spinning figures to make them look better for their side — which while we might wish it were illegal, is pretty much 90% of what city officials spend their time doing. So good luck with that before a judge, though if it means two weeks of court dates where Kevin Johnson and company are forced to acknowledge all the goodies that they ladled onto the Kings deal, there’s a benefit to that, too.

Sacramento spending $4m in public funds on giant poorly-colored Piglet

Sacramento is spending $8 million, half of it public money the rest contributed by private donors, to buy a Jeff Koons sculpture to put outside the new Kings arena, plus another $1.5 million in private funds to buy some local art so that local artists don’t feel put out about a guy from New York getting all the money.

And really, that’s all I have to say, except that finally Red Grooms has a shot at being displaced for the ugliest piece of sports venue art.

Everybody suing everybody else over everything, same as usual

Lawsuit news! Nothing but lawsuit news!

Yeah. I think you can see why I don’t always report on every piece of lawsuit news: There’s nothing stopping anyone from filing suit for any reason, so while it’s often interesting to know what’s being challenged in court (hey, you never know what might succeed), most of it ends up being just a lot of legal fees signifying nothing, and there are more important things going on. Today’s a slow news day, though, so a perfect day to play catchup, and give you all some information for filling out your restraining order brackets.

Business prof says Kings arena could bring MLS team, TV station gets all excited

What the what, CBS Sacramento?

Economists: Downtown Sacramento Kings Arena Could Pave Way For MLS Franchise

That … doesn’t even make any sense? Certainly Sacramento is vying for an MLS expansion franchise, along with everyone else on the planet, and maybe having successfully thrown a whole lot of money at the Kings would help convince the soccer league that they could have money thrown their way, too. But from an economic perspective, what does one have to do with the other? What kind of economists are these, anyway?

Sacramento State economics professor and Wells Fargo wealth adviser Sanjay Varshney says if that arena wasn’t under construction, there’s no way anyone would be talking about the possibility of an MLS stadium coming to the railyards.

“The fact that Sacramento succeeded in keeping the Kings here and are putting in a new arena will be a factor in whether or not we actually get soccer now,” he said.

So, first of all, that’s not economists, plural, it’s one economist. (No one else is cited by name in the CBS Sacramento story.) And second, it’s arguably not even one economist, because while Varshney does have a master’s in economics, he’s actually he’s a finance professor at Sacramento State’s business school, who recently stepped down as dean to work as an investment advisor for Wells Fargo’s wealthy clients.

Not that this makes Varshney unqualified to speculate wildly about how MLS will pick which cities to expand to, any more than any of the rest of us are. But hanging an entire story on this, and spinning it as something “economists” predict, is a low point even for TV news.

Back in the real world, meanwhile, MLS officials heard pitches from would-be owners in Sacramento, Minneapolis and Las Vegas for the last expansion team of the passel being handed out by the league this decade. A decision could be made by the league Board of Governors meeting on December 6, or not.