Is the GOP's Point Man for Recruiting Black Candidates Hiding a Fake Ph.D. and a Violent Past?
May 26, 2010 |
Tall, trim and good-looking, with a Ph.D., according to his bio, and a 21-year military career -- from which he retired as an officer, according to his resume -- Johnson presents himself as a committed Christian family man. He is a spokesman for his cause at events convened by the religious right, such as the recent Freedom Federation Awakening Summit that took place at Liberty University last month, and to the media. In recent months, Johnson has been quoted by the New York Times and the Associated Press, and has appeared on CNN.
But in the year since he won the vice-chairmanship of the North Carolina Republican Party -- the first African American to win such a high office in the NCGOP -- key elements of Johnson's personal story are being questioned.
A leading figure in efforts to build a movement of African-American conservative Christian Republicans, Johnson was elected to his GOP post by party delegates last year despite a felony domestic violence conviction, questions raised about his military service and the validity of the doctorate that appears on his resume. An investigation by AlterNet turned up records of a second domestic violence arrest and raised further questions about Johnson's military service.
Johnson's profile in the North Carolina Republican Party is due, in part, to his chairmanship of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, which bills itself as "a public policy and educational organization which brings the sanctity of free market and limited government ideas to bear on the hardest problems facing our nation." In his work at the foundation -- a post Johnson maintains in addition to his duties as vice-chair of the North Carolina GOP -- Johnson is working to elect the record 32 African-American Republicans running for House and Senate seats this year. The Frederick Douglass Foundation also claims, on its Web site, to serve as "a liaison to Black, Faith Based organizations," and has ties to the Family Research Council and the ministries of Wellington Boone. The foundation also sponsored viewings of the film Maafa 21, which claims that legal abortion amounts to genocide of African Americans.
A Fabricated Endorsement from a Battered Ex-Wife?
Just days before Johnson stood for election to his party office at the North Carolina Republican state convention in June 2009, a local television news station revealed that Johnson had pleaded guilty in 1996 to a felony domestic violence charge in Cleveland, Ohio, and served 18 months probation. Johnson reacted to that revelation by issuing a statement, infused with Biblical references, asserting he had put the incident behind him: "There seems to be an attempt to discredit me, bring shame to my family and to publicly promote a distorted view of a particularly disappointing time in my life."
Johnson also attached an endorsement letter from Ofelia Felix-Johnson, his former wife, whom he was convicted of assaulting. At the time of the assault, the two were still married. But this month, Mountain Xpress, an independent paper in Asheville, reported that Felix-Johnson contends that her ex-husband fabricated the letter.
"I absolutely did not say that," she told the paper. "This was not done with my consent, and I didn't even know about it. I didn't appreciate him putting my name out there when I had nothing to do with it."
Several attempts by AlterNet to reach Felix-Johnson, who now lives in Nebraska, were unsuccessful. Timothy Johnson told AlterNet he drafted the letter, but obtained Felix-Johnson's permission use her name with it.
According to court records, Johnson was arrested on Christmas Day 1995 in Cleveland, Ohio, and was later indicted by a grand jury for two felony counts, one of felonious assault and the other of kidnapping. According to the arrest report, when the police arrived, they found Felix-Johnson bleeding from the face. Timothy Johnson told the officers, according to their report, "I admit it. I hit her, that's the only way I can get her attention." Felix-Johnson told the officers he restrained her on the couch, holding down her neck. One officer reports Ofelia Felix-Johnson saying that Johnson also punched her breasts, saying that she had no heart, and hit her over the back and buttocks with a plastic shoe rack, breaking the rack. The police report in the court file states that Johnson broke his wife's nose and toes, causing her to be hospitalized.
The assault took place before Johnson switched political parties. At the time, he was running in the Democratic primary for a seat in the Ohio state legislature. He lost the primary three weeks after he was indicted -- two months before he pleaded guilty to one count of lesser offense of aggravated assault (still a felony) in May 1996. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison but the court suspended the sentence and placed Johnson on 18 months probation, ordered him to obtain a job at the GM plant in Toledo, undergo domestic violence counseling, have no contact by phone or in person with the victim, perform 150 hours of community service, and pay restitution to the victim.
In 2000, he applied to have the court record expunged, which the court denied in 2001.
Domestic Violence and the 'Poll Tax' Defense
In his nomination speech to the North Carolina state convention for the position of vice chair, Johnson apologized for the past, according to the Raleigh News-Observer. "Ladies, I apologize," he said. "I made my peace with God. I made my peace with my ex-wife." But in the speech Johnson claimed he was "personally attacked" over a "sad incident," adding it was "appalling" that fellow Republicans would bring the story to the attention of the local media. Introducing him, his current wife Latessa Johnson said he "repents for his wrongs" and called the "personal attacks" "irrelevant, divisive, and destructive to our great Republican Party."
"I think people look beyond those issues in electing the vice-chair," Timothy Johnson told AlterNet in a interview conducted last week. "Thus far no one has asked me to resign as vice-chair. So I think that should be the extent that I deal with that." Johnson also accused his detractors of being motivated by race, and likened the questions about his past to a "poll tax," saying that white public figures are not subject to the same scrutiny.
AlterNet obtained documentation of a second incident when police were called to intervene in a domestic conflict at the home of Timothy Johnson and Ofelia Felix-Johnson. Land records show the couple purchased a house in Perrysburg, Ohio, in March 1997. In 1998, Johnson was arrested by the Perrysburg Police, again on domestic violence charges. According to the police report, Johnson provided a "very similar" account of the incident to that his wife Ofelia and 14-year-old son gave police. Both wife and son reported that Johnson had Ofelia Felix-Johnson in a wrist lock, and when the son attempted to stop Johnson from hurting his mother, Johnson put the son in a head lock such that he was "unable to breathe and was choking up food," according to the police report. After the son broke free, the police report continues, Johnson "put his right hand around [the boy's] throat and pushed [him] against the wall with his back to the wall and choked [the boy] for about 5 seconds."
According to court records, Ofelia Felix-Johnson did not appear for the hearing, and the charges were dismissed. Johnson told AlterNet that "the incident that took place wasn't domestic violence. My ex-wife and I had a disagreement. And as always, well the person says, well I know you have this past on you so I'll just call the police. And as you said, there was no conviction and there was no trial. You know why? Because there was nothing there."
In his earlier interview with AlterNet, in which we discussed only the 1995 assault to which Johnson pleaded guilty, the North Carolina GOP vice-chair interjected, without any prompting or prior discussion, the subject of immigration as a means of comparison to the scrutiny he endured -- which he seemed to attribute to the fact of his race -- ever since his conviction came to light during his campaign for the vice-chairmanship of the state party. He seemed to be saying that scrutiny was particularly unfair when compared with demands by advocates for immigration reform, which many conservatives define as "amnesty" for people who have entered the United States illegally.
Johnson questioned why illegal immigrants could be granted amnesty when he had served his sentence for breaking the law, but was nonetheless still held to account for his actions. "The reality of it is that we will go out of our way to talk about the protection of these individuals because of their human rights," Johnson said, "but my brothers and sisters who have made a mistake, born in this country but made a mistake but had to serve under the judicial system of this country, walk around for the rest of their life in this Judeo-Christian society with a scarlet letter A, every day."
Sketchy Military History
In North Carolina, some of those questioning Johnson's record say they were at one time big fans of his. But since his campaign for vice chair, questions remain about his military record and the level of education Johnson claims to have attained.
"Tim and I were pretty good friends," said Bill Fishburne, a Republican activist in Asheville and an editor at the conservative Asheville Tribune. "I thought that this was a fine, outstanding guy coming along, and particularly, I thought he was a fine, outstanding retired officer and then he wanted to run -- and particularly it was good that he was a black Republican."
But then, Fishburne told AlterNet, he heard about the domestic violence conviction. In addition, Fishburne claims, Johnson provided conflicting accounts of the dates of military service and the rank he attained. According to the Independent Weekly, a progressive paper in Durham, Johnson issued a statement during the campaign that he had served in the military until 2007. But Johnson told AlterNet that he retired in 2005.
Fishburne says when he asked to see Johnson's official military discharge records, "Tim took great umbrage with anybody questioning his military background -- and a real retired officer, I don't think would have that [umbrage]. It just stinks."
In a confrontation at a Denny's restaurant, captured on video and posted on YouTube by a Johnson supporter, Johnson angrily reacted to Fishburne's inquiries, raising his voice and saying at one point, "I'm sick and tired of this shit."
In the video, Fishburne is seen examining what is described by both parties as a copy of Johnson's DD-214 form, the official discharge papers provided to service members by the Department of Defense. The video shows Johnson leafing through the document, calling Fishburne's attention to pages that answer his questions. While Fishburne was perusing the document, Johnson states that he served from 1984-2004, on active duty and reserves, served in Bosnia and Croatia, and retired with the rank of major.
Timothy F. Johnson and Bill Fishburne discuss his military discharge papers.
A felony conviction typically disqualifies someone from serving in the military, unless they receive a waiver. A felony conviction during service would be a basis for administrative discharge for misconduct, according to Eugene Fidell, senior research scholar in law at Yale Law School, and leading expert on military law.
Johnson told AlterNet that he did not inform the Army of his 1996 conviction, and that it only became an issue when his security clearance needed to be renewed in 2004. Rather than renew it, he said, he retired in 2005, he said. "I could still fight if I wanted to but the reality of it is I'd already done 21 years," Johnson told me, "so I wasn't going to press the issue."
In his interview with AlterNet, Johnson also said he did not inform the Army of his 1998 arrest for domestic violence in Perrysburg, Ohio, saying he was not obligated to do so. "You don't have to tell the military," Johnson said. "Things like that happen all the time. Look at what happened in Texas -- at Fort Hood. You think that guy was telling the military that, oh, I've been with al Qaeda? No!"
And About that Ph.D.
Fishburne and others also question Johnson's claim of having obtained a doctorate, and Johnson refused to discuss the topic with media during the campaign, and he refused again to discuss it with AlterNet.
Johnson claims to have received a Ph.D. in "Total Quality Management" from La Salle University in 2000, but he doesn't list the location of the university from which he claims to obtained the degree. La Salle University in Philadelphia is the only accredited educational institution AlterNet found by that name. It offers doctorates in only two disciplines: Clinical Psychology and Nursing Practice, according to its Web site.
When the Independent Weekly launched an investigation last year into the Republican vice chair's claim to a doctorate, Johnson refused to answer the paper's questions. The Independent Weekly reported that Johnson's degree was apparently from a Louisiana correspondence school that also went by the name of La Salle University which, according to the New Orleans Times Picayune, was never accredited. A diploma from an unaccredited institution is not considered to be a valid degree.
Johnson likewise refused to answer questions about his degree from AlterNet, and has never publicly rebutted the claims made in the Independent article, which reported:
The La Salle in Louisiana...operated as a diploma mill from 1986 to mid-1997, essentially selling degrees (it advertised heavily on matchbook covers) until the FBI raided and shut it down. Its owner, Thomas J. Kirk, was imprisoned for mail and tax fraud, among other charges. That "university" employed no faculty, only secretaries to handle the paperwork and the money.
Kirk was an officer of the World Vision Church, which the Times Picayune described as "the parent corporation Kirk created to shield the...correspondence school from regulation and tax liability." The leadership of the "university" was later assumed by a Republican party operative who renamed it Orion College, dubbing the enterprise as a "distance learning innovator." It began accepting students in 2000, but shut its doors a year later when it failed to win accreditation.
A Rising Star, or Super Nova Waiting to Happen?
Johnson is a rising star not just within the Republican Party -- he and seven other African-American state party leaders were summoned to a meeting with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele last month -- but in the religious right as well. At a much-hyped summit convened by the Freedom Federation at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia last month, Johnson moderated a panel on "The Values, Politics, and Message of the Black Community." The Summit was a gathering of "multiracial, multiethnic and multigenerational faith-based and policy organizations and leaders" to plan political messaging and strategy to mobilize African-American and Latino conservatives.
Speaking of the foundation he chairs, Johnson told the Freedom Federation audience, "We're proud, proud, devoted Christians, proud black Americans, and active Republicans."
The Frederick Douglass Foundation was founded by Johnson and Dean Nelson, who also heads the Network of Politically Active Christians, housed in the offices of the Family Research Council, which is attempting to build an African-American religious right. The Frederick Douglass Foundation was founded to foster and support black Republicans running for office; both Nelson and Johnson say it is very much motivated by religion. NPAC and another organization on whose board Nelson serves, the Virginia Christian Alliance, co-sponsored screenings of the Maafa 21 anti-abortion film.
"Many of our candidates are ministers of the gospel, and they're very clear where they stand when it comes down to the Bible," said Johnson. "They don't waffle from that. There are too many organizations, too many black Democrats, as far as I'm concerned, who waffle about the Bible and Christianity."
The Frederick Douglass Foundation "really through Tim's emphasis and leadership, is a faith-based organization," said Nelson. "Tim has really strived to make it not just, quote-unquote, Republican, but an organization that is for active Republicans who are devoted Christians."
Several of the candidates the Foundation is supporting are pastors or ministers, including Stephen Broden, Isaac Hayes, and Michael Faulkner, who are running in Texas, Illinois, and New York, respectively. Broden gave the "benediction" at the Congressional Republicans' "House Call Protest" against health-care reform last November, where he called the Democrats' health-care reform bill "death care," which is "against the law of nature and nature's God" and "against the Judeo-Christian ethic that this nation was built upon." Another Foundation-supported candidate, Les Phillip, running for Congress in Alabama, has said God called him to run, and is running an ad in which he contrasts himself with President Obama, whom he says "fell in with left-wing radicals" and "played with terrorists and allowed his America-hating pastor to baptize his children."
Pastor Stephen Broden's benediction at Rep. Michele Bachmann's Republican congressional event called in opposition to health-care reform, Nov. 5, 2009.
Nelson told me he invited Johnson and 10 or 15 other conservative African American Republicans to Washington shortly after Obama won the 2008 presidential election. The pair had met several years earlier in Georgia at a training session Johnson led through his company, Leadership 101.
Nelson described the candidates the Foundation is supporting as "social prophets."
"[T]he times have almost dictated for many of them to rise up and take a step." The Foundation has helped increase their "visibility," he added. That visibility is crucial to fill a gap left by the Republican party apparatus. "The NRCC didn't really care, because they don't want a bunch of these candidates whom they think can't win come knocking on their door for money," said Nelson, "and the RNC has its priorities and this is not necessarily going to be a priority although they have made it a priority because we have pushed it, I believe, as a priority and they see value in it."
Nelson said he'd never heard anyone raise questions about Johnson's military service but did hear "doomsayers questioning his educational credentials as well as the domestic dispute with his ex-wife. I became aware of that during that time period. As Christian brothers, we were already praying together every other day, anyway."
"Sure, it raised some concerns," Nelson said. "I think with anybody, particularly people like myself who are people of faith who have high standards, we never make a full judgment based on what people have done; it's a lot about their attitude about what they've done. That's the Christian message, really."
"I have come to know Tim," Nelson continued. "We have grown to know each other, so, realistically, it was a political hurdle, but it was never a personal issue or challenge to our friendship in any way."
A Man of Character
Last September, Tom Fetzer, chair of the North Carolina Republican Party, asked Johnson to apologize to a party staffer after he reportedly held her wrist and berated her at a party function at the Greater Greensboro Women's Republican Club. According to the News Observer, Johnson chastised the staffer because he felt he was being excluded from party business because of his race.
In the letter obtained by the News Observer, Fetzer wrote, "You approached her, grabbed her by the hand and would not let go of it while you berated her about the performance of the staff at the NCGOP headquarters for several minutes. During the entire conversation, she felt 'cornered' and unable to escape. She found your attitude to be condescending and the entire encounter to be very embarrassing."
"At best, as reported to me," Fetzer added, "you exhibited extremely poor manners, and at worst, conduct unbecoming an officer of the North Carolina Republican Party."
Johnson does not deny that Fetzer asked him to issue the apology, and said that he did apologize, but claimed that he only gave the woman an extended handshake. Fetzer's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Carla Harper, the president of the Greensboro Club, said, "that supposed incident got blown out of proportion." She added, "There's always going to be a few people that enjoy stirring things up and they like seeing people squirm."
Harper praised Johnson, saying, "he's doing a great job. He has the character to do the job he's in."