either resign or be removed

The Johnston County school board is demanding one of its members resign or ask the district attorney to remove him from office based on allegations of ethics violations.

The school board voted 6-1 Wednesday to censure Ronald Johnson, accusing him of violating the board’s ethics policy by secretly recording conversations and trying to influence the principal’s student assignment decision.

The board said if Johnson does not resign by noon Friday, it will ask Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle to begin the process of removing him from his position. School board vice president Terri Sessoms said possible reasons for Johnson’s removal could include liability to the board and breach of public trust.

“You have abused the trust of the people who voted for you and that’s a shame because that trust that you broke by violating the ethics board has cost our children,” Sessoms said. “It has cost our children time. It has cost our children legal fees. It has cost morale to our children.”

Johnson repeatedly called the accusations a “witch hunt” on Wednesday. He accused the board of trying to override the will of voters who re-elected him to the school board in 2020 for a four-year term.

Johnston County School Board member Ronald Johnson speaks Aug. 24, 2022 against the board’s resolution to censure him and ask him to resign from office.

“This is outrageous,” Johnson said. “This is in stark conflict with what the people of this county said they wanted less than a year and a half ago.”

Johnson is also a detective with the Smithfield Police Department who was initially placed on leave on July 5 as part of an internal investigation. This was converted to unpaid leave on July 13. Smithfield police declined to release more information Thursday.

When news of the police investigation first broke, Johnson said he would resign from the school board. But Johnson later said he would remain on the board “as long as I can.”

He is accused of ethical violations

The censure resolution is based on an investigation by the law firm of Tharrington Smith, the board’s attorney, into two charges.

Johnson is accused of secretly recording part of a May 31 closed session discussion and sharing the information with an employee whose salary was being discussed. During the investigation, Tharrington Smith says Johnson admitted to secretly taping board members’ conversations on 10 occasions.

Johnson is accused of abusing his authority by trying to interfere with the placement of two special education students. Johnson is accused of asking the principal to deny the request because his parent had “turned.”

North Carolina is a one-party consent state, so usually both parties do not need to give permission to record a conversation.

However, the board’s ethics policy requires board members to pledge that they “will not make secret recordings, in any form, on school system property, at school or Board-related events or meetings, or otherwise connected with the business of the Board of Trustees or Johnson County Public Schools.”

The resolution says the “weight of the evidence” supports the allegations.

Johnson initially met with Tarrington Smith before refusing to cooperate. He accused the council of using hearsay evidence to target him.

“The most weight will be given to the information you have, because again I refused to participate in this witch hunt,” Johnson said.

Secret recordings were disputed

Johnson’s secret recordings were a sore point among his colleagues. Johnson provided at least one of the conversations to school board candidates Michelle Antoine and Kevin Donovan, who posted part of it online.

“If everything we say is focused on students, we shouldn’t have to worry about what’s being taped,” Johnson said.

But school board President Todd Sutton asked Johnson why he had to tape the conversations then. Johnson replied that this was because if he claims something happened, people will say it didn’t happen.

“Mr. Johnson, I don’t need to go around taping anybody,” Sutton said. “You probably have tape files of everyone in this room. But that’s okay. You admitted to taping us on 10 separate occasions.”

Johnson called the charges against him a “whistleblowing” case because of the conversation he provided to Antoine and Donovan. Sutton denied it was retaliation.

“You used the whistleblower way too far,” Sutton said. “This is not an informant. This is something you violated.”

Police investigation

The board’s resolution asks the district attorney to seek information from the Smithfield police investigation for possible use in Johnson’s removal.

Sessoms pointed back to the police investigation when Johnson denied the allegations in the impeachment motion.

“There’s obviously enough evidence to get you fired from the Police Department without pay,” Sessoms said. “That alone makes it hard for me to believe what you have to say.”

Details about the police investigation have not been released, but Antoine and Donovan said they were questioned about recordings Johnson may have made.

“You don’t know that, so you’re talking about something you don’t know about Mrs. Sessoms and making a very strong inference,” Johnson said.

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