Former Richmond Official Sues City, Claims Defamation about City Vehicle Use

April 30, 2009

RICHMOND, VA – A former Richmond official has filed a $1 million lawsuit against the City alleging he was forced to resign and was defamed after resisting a plan to evict the School Board from City Hall, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Benjamin Johnson, who worked as the city's emergency management director from 2004 to 2008, filed the lawsuit April 10 in Richmond Circuit Court, said the Richmond Times Dispatch. He accuses the City of giving reporters selective and damaging information about a $500-per-month automobile allowance he received while he also had access to a city vehicle.

Johnson says the city vehicle was part of the compensation offered him when he was hired and that the monthly allowance was later approved as a salary supplement for good performance.

The lawsuit does not mention officials by name, but says the damaging and false information was released through the offices of the auditor, the mayor, human resources, and the chief administrative officer.

The suit also claims the City purposefully did not release information on how it commonly used vehicle allowances to supplement salaries of employees, including then-Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. The City Council has since banned the practice, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Johnson's troubles, the lawsuit suggests, stemmed from his resistance to the former administration's plan to force the School Board out of City Hall.

The lawsuit describes a September 2007 meeting of senior Wilder administration officials to review plans for the eviction. It was attempted later that month, but ultimately blocked by Circuit Judge Margaret P. Spencer.

"Johnson vocally opposed the forced removal of the School Board as well as the utilization of city funds and resources to pay for the move," the lawsuit says. "He refused to participate in the process, which has been declared illegal in the courts."

In April 2008, Johnson's lawsuit says, the city auditor's office recommended he be disciplined "for his 'dishonesty' relating to the receipt of the monthly car allowance while having the ability to use a city vehicle," according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Four days later, according to the lawsuit, Johnson was called into the office of then-Chief Administrative Officer Sheila Hill-Christian and told to resign, reported the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Johnson's resignation was announced that night in a news release that also detailed Wilder's plan to repay what turned out to be $25,900 in allowances the mayor had been receiving while he was also being given access to a city vehicle through a police security unit.

Johnson has said he has voluntarily repaid the City for the $16,500 in allowances he received, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Johnson's lawsuit claims damage to his reputation and professional standing, as well as emotional distress and legal costs.

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