U.S. suspends aid to nonprofit

Times Staff Writer

Federal authorities investigating a nonprofit program run by mayoral candidate and former NBA star Kevin Johnson have suspended its funding after finding possible criminal and financial irregularities, officials announced Thursday.

Johnson and his St. Hope Academy have been barred from receiving or spending federal funds for up to a year or until the ongoing investigation is concluded.

Among the charges lodged against Johnson, who is locked in a heated mayoral race in Sacramento against incumbent Heather Fargo, is that he used federally funded AmeriCorps members to drive him to personal appointments, wash his car and run errands.

Gerald Walpin, inspector general for the Corp. for National and Community Service, which oversees the AmeriCorps volunteer program, said that enough evidence exists to warrant “that immediate action be taken” before the investigation is concluded.


St. Hope Academy, which runs volunteer programs as well as a charter school network that includes Sacramento High School, received more than $800,000 in federal funding between 2004 and the end of last year.

Johnson was in New York and unavailable for comment, but a spokesman said the allegations and the decision to announce them barely a week before the start of absentee voting were suspect.

“The timing is politically motivated. The dramatization of what are administrative errors is politically motivated,” said Steve Maviglio, Johnson’s campaign manager.

The findings have been turned over to the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento for review. Maviglio said Johnson was confident that no charges would be filed.

Federal investigators launched the probe last spring after stories in the Sacramento Bee raised questions about fiscal and operational improprieties at St. Hope’s Neighborhood Corps volunteer program. One allegation was that Johnson made sexual overtures to a young woman in the AmeriCorps program.

The sexual misconduct charge against the former Phoenix Suns player was dropped, but investigators said they identified several other instances of suspected malfeasance.

Among other things, they allege, AmeriCorps volunteers were improperly directed to recruit students for St. Hope Academy, illegally deployed to campaign for school board members, flown to New York to promote expansion of a St. Hope charter school and assigned jobs as janitors and clerks, duties outside the scope of the work spelled out in their federal contracts.

In addition, investigators say, two St. Hope Academy employees were enrolled in the AmeriCorps program to illegally supplement staff salaries.