Parade of Witnesses Continues on Day 3 of Johnson Case

June 26, 2009
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Councilman Steven Johnson

Councilman Steven Johnson

An investigator, two appraisers and a pastor all took turns on the witness stand on day three of the West Covina Superior Court trial to determine whether La Verne Councilman Steven Johnson violated conflict of interest laws when he voted on a University expansion plan more than two years ago.

Mary Kay Stephens, an investigator in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Division, was the first witness of the day and the last called by Deputy District Attorney Jonlyn Callahan. Stephens recounted for Callahan and the jury how she received a citizen complaint and read a subsequent newspaper article on the potential conflict-of-interest case. She said she followed up by visiting and photographing the locations identified in the complaint, in addition to pulling council minutes from the Jan. 16, 2007 meeting, ordering maps, interviewing witnesses and serving subpoenas.

Stephens’ testimony was brief and Johnson’s attorney, Richard Farquhar, declined the opportunity to cross-examine the people’s witness.

Farquhar began his defense by calling Johnson’s brother, Kirk Johnson, to the stand. Kirk Johnson was also a law school classmate of Farquhar before going on to become an attorney, real estate broker and real estate appraiser, including performing some 6,000 appraisals, about 500 of those in La Verne.

Informed by La Verne’s city attorney about a possible conflict of interest because of his ownership of property within 500 feet of the University of La Verne, Steve Johnson had sought an alternative opinion, asking his brother in his  professional capacity as an appraiser to assess the financial impact the University expansion would have on his property. In an email, he also attached a copy of the school’s master plan.

In response, Kirk Johnson wrote that the University’s expansion “would not likely impact” the value of the property. “I just don’t think it’s relevant,” Kirk Johnson also testified.

Kirk Johnson’s opinion and those of other appraisers called to testify are important to the case because state law presumes, based on the 500-foot rule, that voting is a conflict of interest, unless there is proof that a defendant’s property value will not benefit from a proposed change.


Callahan challenged Kirk Johnson’s use of words, such as “likely” in his letter and use of other descriptive language, such as “absolutely,” in his testimony to describe his opinion that the University’s expansion would not have a financial effect on his brother’s property. Kirk Johnson attributed the different uses to his “writing style.” “I don’t think it’s a change of opinion,” he replied.


Farquhar next called Susan Boyer, pastor of the La Verne Church of the Brethren, as a character witness. “Steve is known for loving the city of La Verne, first and foremost,” she testified, acknowledging that Johnson was a councilman who also “spoke his mind” and believed in “having a voice.”


James Himes, an appraiser with 37 years’ experience, followed Boyer to the stand, stating as Kirk Johnson had, that the University’s master plan showed no financial effect on Councilman Johnson’s property. Himes added that he had talked to property owners also within the critical 500-foot ring, which is the lynchpin for the lawsuit, who told him the University’s master plan held no benefit for them.


“Both said the University or its master plan did not come into play; it was never considered by them,” Himes said.


Citing a number of barriers – fences, trees, railway tracks and a four-lane highway with turnout lanes, Himes said Councilman Johnson’s property was in effect “barred from the campus.”


“I would have no reason to believe students would have any reason to go to Mr. Johnson’s office,” Himes added.


Himes said he used several other factors – such as flat rental rates, little construction activity over the last decade, few recent area real estate sales, and the small projected increase of new students in the master plan – to form his opinion. Searching for a development impetus that could increase real estate values, including the University’s master plan, Himes said, “It’s just not there.”


Hired by the defense, Himes was paid $3,750 for his report and testimony. Himes responded that while his work was “extensive,” it was not “expensive.”


Day 3 concluded as Callahan was in the middle of her cross-examination of Himes and about to review a series of real estate sales data with the appraiser when the Hon. Judge Jon Takasugi adjourned the court for the day.


The trial resumes today at 11 a.m. in Department 8 of the West Covina Superior Court.




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