Kenyatta Johnson acknowledges his group got more than "hundreds of dollars"

Posted: July 22, 2014

It wasn't just "hundreds of dollars," City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson now acknowledges. It was just over $10,000.

But he still says that all the money donated to his Peace Not Guns group was handled honestly, if somewhat sloppily, and that critics of its unauthorized use of a federal charity designation are missing the point.

"The mission of Peace Not Guns is pure," the Philadelphia councilman said during a recent interview.

To make his case about the antiviolence organization, which he often trumpets as the cornerstone of 15 years of community service, he invited a reporter to sift through a color-coded chart and 70 pages of documents spread across a conference table in his lawyer's office.

In June, Johnson took body blows in the media as news reports showed his organization had listed itself online as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, when it was not.

Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code exempts groups from taxes if their purposes are purely charitable. But Johnson has never applied for the exemption.

 At one point, his chief aide told the now-defunct news website AxisPhilly, which broke the story, there were "no financials" for Peace Not Guns. "It's just a concept, really," the aide said. At another, Johnson apologized for the 501(c)(3) error.

Flanked by his lawyer and a spokesman, Johnson, a Democrat and former state representative, sat with a reporter for nearly three hours to offer his side of the story.

He repeated his assertion that he never had solicited money by telling donors they would reap federal tax exemptions. He said, again and again, there was nothing to see here. No smoke. No fire.

Even so, the chart he prepared showed his group had pulled in $10,280 in donations since 2008 - not the "hundreds of dollars" he had said was the total of all donations received.

"I stand corrected," he said.

Some numbers on the color-coded sheet stood out, such as a $2,500 donation. He declined to name the donor and most of the other donors, saying such givers expect privacy.

Johnson said people who know him "know I've always been a person who worked with integrity and who believed in my mission of Peace Not Guns."

His voice rising, he added, "This is an issue that defined who I am as a person. Born and raised in South Philly, all my life I watched not only a cousin but several of my friends being murdered."

Johnson said his paperwork showed Peace Not Guns handled only small sums, mostly donated by other nonprofits and a few local politicians who supported the group's antiviolence mission for disadvantaged teenagers.

Prompted by a slaying

By turns deep-voiced and animated, then relaxed and soft-spoken, Johnson defended his group passionately and said it had been unfairly bludgeoned in news reports. His eyes became glassy and his voice trembled when he spoke of the event that prompted him to start Peace Not Guns - the fatal 1998 shooting of his cousin in a schoolyard.

The idea was simple, he said - "teaching young people conflict resolution, anger management, anti-street education."

In years past, the group has staged community banquets with antiviolence speakers, book bag giveaways, rallies, and prayer vigils. Today, it mostly focuses on an annual teens-vs.-police officers basketball game in Point Breeze, aimed at fostering better relations.

Johnson said he never meant for the group to be a "fund-raising entity," as he put it, and if it didn't keep good records, it's "no excuse . . . I was a community organizer prior to becoming an elected official, and I was just focused on the [group's] mission."

An exuberant politician who often wears tailored suits, Johnson was elected to City Council in 2011 in a district that stretches from South Philadelphia into lower Center City.

He isn't the first local officeholder to face questions about a nonprofit he founded. State Rep. Dwight Evans was criticized for some of the millions in state aid he directed to his Ogontz neighborhood project; the charges that sent former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo to prison included misusing a South Philadelphia nonprofit's funds.

Some of Johnson's critics have wondered aloud whether more cash flowed through his group than the amounts he has described. They have also questioned whether it all went to combatting gun violence.

Zack Stalberg, recently departed chief executive of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy, has called for a federal or state investigation. (Johnson says no law enforcement agencies have contacted him.)

"What is not known is the extent they received money and spent money under the banner of Peace Not Guns," Stalberg said. "When you're talking about a 501(c)(3), it's pretty well known it's an official legal status, and you can't be suggesting that you have that tax-exempt status when you don't. . . It's far more than sloppy."

Johnson said most of the bigger events his group sponsored were in 2008, the year for which it kept a bank account.

After that account was closed, he said, donations were fewer and only from political funds that agreed at his request to write checks "directly to vendors" used by his group.

What of the difference between the "hundreds of dollars" he had previously said Peace Not Guns received and the $10,280 total on his chart?

"You know what - and I stand corrected - I'm thinking in the context of, normally, when we do a Peace Not Guns basketball game, there's really a small amount of funds you need for trophies, and T-shirts, and so I probably was thinking more in the context of events that we do on a yearly basis."

He said he believed a Web designer had put the 501(c)(3) designation on the nonprofit's website, where it stayed for five years.

In late 2008 or 2009, he said, he hired a designer - he would not give the person's name - to revamp the site. Because the group was registered as a nonprofit in Pennsylvania, Johnson said, "I think he assumed. . . I was probably a federally exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit." He called the erroneous listing "something I didn't pick up on."

He said the documents he laid out represented all the Peace Not Guns money records he could locate.

Among the photocopied papers were checks from 2008, usually for less than $500, written to Peace Not Guns, occasionally with a memo line reading "donation"; and expense forms indicating cash outlays, typically of $100 or less, for things like "truck rental" or "soccer trophies."  

The chart also listed donations between 2008 and 2013 from a few local candidates' campaign funds, totalling about $4,000.

Ori Feibush, a developer who plans to run against Johnson next year, said he was unsatisfied with the explanations.

"The truth may not be bad," Feibush said. "I just don't know what it is. . . . the story has changed so many times."

Johnson said no other sizeable amounts of money linked to Peace Not Guns would turn up.

"You will not find tens of thousands of dollars," he said.


jgrant@philly.com

215-854-5506

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