Removal of Dan Johnson might have led to lengthy legal battle, J - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Removal of Dan Johnson might have led to lengthy legal battle, Jefferson County Attorney's office warned

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Metro Councilman Dan Johnson Metro Councilman Dan Johnson

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Before voting Wednesday to let Dan Johnson keep his Metro Council seat, the special council court received an opinion from the Jefferson County Attorney's office noting that Johnson might remain in his position if he appealed his removal.

The October 31 opinion, obtained Thursday by WDRB News, concluded that Johnson "would likely" ask a Jefferson Circuit Court judge to delay his removal while his attorney could argue, in part, that citizens elected Johnson and removing him was a "disservice to his constituents."

Assistant County Attorney Matt Golden, who wrote the opinion and sat in Metro Council chambers during the proceedings, cited cases in which judges had prevented the removal of elected officials until a case was fully litigated. 

"If a judge were to (stop) Metro Council from filling the District 21 seat, the judge would likely not prohibit Councilman Johnson from sitting as a Councilmember during the pendency of the appeal to avoid disenfranchising his constituents," Golden wrote. 

And Golden pointed out the appeal could take six months to a year with "the potential to last for many years," meaning Johnson could remain on the council with no restrictions for most of the rest of his term. 

And he wrote that the removal hearing could play out again at a trial, with "all witnesses" from the hearing being called to testify in court. 

The settlement was condemned by council members on the charging committee and many in the community, viewed as a slap on the wrist for someone who has repeatedly been accused of misconduct and harassment. 

Council President David Yates, who acted as a mediator and judge in the hearing, said in a press release that members of the council court were "confidentially advised" by the county attorney's office of changes in the law regarding removing elected officials that would "all but guarantee an appeal" by Johnson.

The change in law was in regard to the number of Metro Council votes need to remove a member.

The appeal, Yates said, "would likely stay any action by the Council Court allowing Johnson to serve out his term without any oversight or protections for members and staff."

With the settlement, the council has the authority to monitor and remove Johnson if "he violates the letter or spirit of the agreement," he added. 

Councilmembers Bill Hollander (D-9), Cheri Bryant Hamilton (D-5), and Barbara Sexton Smith (D-4) said in a press release Thursday that, given the likelihood of litigation and a possible injunction prohibiting removal of Johnson, the settlement was the best option available.

"To ensure that his misconduct could never be repeated, we supported an order that harshly censured Councilman Johnson for his past misconduct and imposed strict limits on his ability to visit City Hall or participate in external activities to prevent future misconduct," according to the press release. "The order amounted to an admission of guilt and outlined a policy of zero tolerance for future infractions, any violation of which will lead to immediate removal with no right to appeal, terms which could not have been imposed in a removal under appeal.

"Reasonable people can disagree about this resolution, but we are confident that this order was the best solution to send a strong signal that misconduct will not be tolerated, while setting up stringent restrictions on Councilman Johnson's future behavior.”

Councilwoman Jessica Green, who accused Johnson of grabbing her backside, said the threat of legal action should not have played a role in the council court's decision. 

"We as a council don’t base our decision on whether it will survive appeal," she said. "We base it on what’s right and wrong. Consider the history the wage floor vote the sanctuary city vote it wasn’t based on what may happen down the road in court. This is shameful and absurd."

After several hours in closed session Wednesday, the court voted 13-6 to pass the motion, with bipartisan "no" votes from David James, Pat Mulvihill, Kevin Kramer, Marilyn Parker, Julie Denton and Brent Ackerson.

As part of the agreement, Johnson waived his right to a hearing, admitting that there is enough evidence for his removal. Johnson will be allowed in City Hall only for the 20 minutes before, during and 20 minutes after committee and council meetings. He must stay off the premises at all other times.

Johnson will not be allowed to initiate contact with other council members, other than by phone or email. He cannot attend any "ceremonial functions" outside District 21, the area he represents on Metro Council.

Also, any "intentional or accidental exposure of his genitals or buttock will result in review..."

While the council court approved the deal with the minimum number of votes needed, the committee that brought the charges against Johnson did not agree to it. Deborah Kent, the committee's attorney, harshly criticized the proposal, calling it "incredibly unfair."

Kent said the council court was essentially "condoning behavior" similar to that of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, both of whom were accused of sexual misconduct.

"We're here to do the tough job," Denton said before voting against the agreement. "This is an abdication of our duties."

Johnson has been fighting sexual harassment allegations for months. The first allegation started with a claim by councilwoman Green, who said Johnson groped her backside at a public event in June at Wyandotte Park. 

"I am disappointed and feel betrayed," Green said after the decision Wednesday. "We have a man who has sexually harassed three separate women in our community, propositioned one, exposed himself to one and groped another... and the majority of the council court believes that it is OK for that person to remain as a sitting member of the council. The five of us on this charging committee do not believe that that is OK.

"Today, I am embarrassed to be a member of this council."

In 2016, Erin Hinson, a legislative aide for Councilwoman Angela Leet said Johnson exposed his naked rear end to her in a parking lot. At the time, it was brushed off as an accident. 

"I know where every exit is in this building, and I have made plans for if something should happen, how to get out," Henson said Wednesday. "Why should I have to come and work in a place every day where I have to have an exit strategy should I have an inappropriate run in with a Metro Council member?"

Johnson was also banned from all Greater Louisville Inc. events after a chamber of commerce employee being called "Jane Doe" said he made lewd comments during a work trip to Austin, Texas. 

"We have all done stupid things," said Thomas McAdam, Johnson's attorney. "We've all said stupid things. We have all at one time or another in our lives done something that gave somebody offense. Always. Did we lose our job over it?"

Johnson is a founding member of the Louisville Metro Council and a former city alderman. He's been in public office for 25 years. 

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