Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson did not answer questions about a city employee’s sexual harassment complaint against him as he attended the opening of Cryobath in Sacramento on Friday. Hector Amezcua hamezcua@sacbee.com
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson did not answer questions about a city employee’s sexual harassment complaint against him as he attended the opening of Cryobath in Sacramento on Friday. Hector Amezcua hamezcua@sacbee.com

City Beat

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City Beat

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson pushes past harassment claim

By Ryan Lillis

rlillis@sacbee.com

May 15, 2015 07:00 PM

UPDATED May 16, 2015 05:21 PM

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson projected an air of normalcy on Friday, a day after it was revealed that a former aide to City Manager John Shirey had accused Johnson of sexually harassing her multiple times over a seven-month period in 2013 and 2014.

Johnson attended a midday ribbon-cutting for a new business on Howe Avenue called CryoBath that uses ultra-low temperatures to treat injuries. Appearing with Johnson was the company’s spokesman, former NBA player A.C. Green, and Vlade Divac, the vice president of basketball and franchise operations for the Sacramento Kings. The three exchanged laughs and recalled their days playing in the NBA.

Minutes before the event started, the mayor’s sport-utility vehicle pulled up to a rear door of the business and Johnson quickly entered the building. He declined to respond when asked whether the allegations against him would have a negative impact on the city. The city rejected the aide’s formal claim this week and Johnson has denied the allegations.

In the claim filed last month with the city clerk’s office, Estrellita Ilee Muller alleged the mayor summoned her to his private library on City Hall’s fifth floor on Dec. 26, 2013.

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Once inside the library, Johnson closed the door, gave Muller “an unwelcome and close hug, pressing his body against (her), then felt along her torso,” according to the claim. He then “pressed his body against hers and asked her if she ‘felt it’ ” before trying to kiss Muller, according to the claim.

Muller’s claim includes two other incidents and alleges that her supervisors at City Hall “did nothing to effectively deal with the situation or protect” her. Muller sought $200,000 from the city. She also filed a complaint with a city human resources manager in October 2014 that was denied.

The city attorney’s office and an outside lawyer who specializes in employment law investigated the claim. City Attorney James Sanchez recommended that Muller’s claim be denied and the City Council approved that recommendation in a closed-door meeting Tuesday night.

Muller was an executive assistant to Shirey before moving to the city’s Human Resources Department in October. She said in a text message to The Sacramento Bee on Friday that she could not comment. Her attorney, Etan Rosen, did not return a phone message left at his office Friday.

Sanchez has advised city officials and members of the City Council not to comment about the claim. While Muller’s attorney told The Bee on Thursday that his client would not seek civil damages against the mayor, Sanchez said Muller could still file a lawsuit or a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Sanchez said the city was not involved in settlement negotiations related to the case. When asked if he was aware of private negotiations taking place, Sanchez replied, “I’m not able to comment on any of that.”

The mayor denied the allegations against him in a prepared statement he read to the media on Thursday. He also suggested the claim was politically motivated, saying it “was brought to the attention of the city weeks before the 2014 November election.”

Voters last year rejected Johnson’s strong-mayor ballot measure, which would have strengthened the powers of his office and given him much of the authority now held by Shirey.

The mayor also expressed concerns that the allegations would “wound me, my family and our city.”

The claim surfaced Thursday as the city is involved in many high-profile endeavors – both within and outside City Hall.

Downtown boosters and city officials are promoting a $150 million streetcar line that would connect West Sacramento with downtown Sacramento. Residents living close to the proposed line in Sacramento’s central city have until June 2 to return ballots stating whether they want to help fund the project.

The city – led by Johnson – for months has been developing plans for a new soccer stadium in the downtown railyard. That effort’s end goal is to land the city’s lower-division soccer club, Republic FC, a spot in Major League Soccer.

Inside City Hall, Johnson is leading negotiations with Shirey over a new contract; Shirey’s current contract expires at the end of June.

Johnson has also proposed increasing his office budget by nearly $700,000 and five new positions, a request that faces resistance by some of his City Council colleagues.

Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento political consultant, said it’s “too early to forecast what the fallout (of the allegations) will be for the mayor or the city.”

“If there is evidence to validate the complaint, then he’s in real political trouble since he has denied it happened,” Stutzman said. “However, if further evidence suggests the complaint is frivolous or contrived, then he is the victim of a false accusation and could benefit from public sympathy.”

Political consultant Doug Elmets noted that Johnson has been the subject of similar allegations in the past – and has emerged unscathed in his political endeavors.

In the midst of his first campaign for mayor in 2008, reports surfaced of three alleged incidents involving Johnson. None of the allegations resulted in criminal charges being filed.

One of the cases stemmed from a 1996 investigation by Phoenix police into an allegation that Johnson, who was 29 at the time, disrobed in the presence of a 16-year-old girl and touched her inappropriately. Johnson signed a draft confidential settlement worth $230,000 with the girl, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Bee.

Despite intense media coverage of those cases, Johnson went on to crush former two-term Mayor Heather Fargo in November 2008, and then cruise to re-election four years later.

“There are many elected officials who have either had allegations made against them or have admitted infidelity who have gone on to become icons,” Elmets said. “The public appears to be more forgiving than the detractors of those elected officials might hope for.”

While the impacts on Johnson’s political future may be limited, Elmets said the events of this week could energize a long list of people considering a run for mayor next year. Johnson has not said whether he plans to seek a third term in 2016.

Three City Council members have been mentioned by political consultants as potential mayoral candidates: Angelique Ashby, Allen Warren and Steve Hansen. And former state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a former councilman, has said he would consider running for mayor, but only if Johnson does not.

“Anytime an elected official is tripped up through allegations, people vying for his or her seat begin to get stars in their eyes,” Elmets said. “And there are several people in this community who would love to be mayor.”

Editor’s note (May 16): This story has been updated to state that in the three alleged incidents that surfaced during the 2008 campaign, none resulted in criminal charges being filed. A previous version said police determined the allegations were unfounded.