Unsporting

Not even God provided for the unpaid employees of a Christianity-based marketing firm

Looking back, Sean Brockette knows the job sounded too good to be true. The 28-year-old television producer, who has an Emmy award to his credit and loves sports, had been toiling as an "account executive" for the Dallas Burn, the professional men's soccer team. It wasn't his dream job. "The bottom line for them was, 'Sell tickets,'" Brockette recalls.

Brockette, a creative type, was frustrated and in his spare time trolled for employment in "sports marketing," a hot new '90s job niche. ("Basically," Brockette explains, "it's using an athlete or a sport to sell a product.") So last June, when he met with Carmen Johnson -- whose business cards identify her as "chairman and CEO" of Signature Sports Marketing, a Christian-themed sports-marketing firm -- he was ready to believe everything she said.

"She was talking about getting an office space in Cityplace, and, you know, everybody's gonna be driving Porsches by the end of the year, and we're gonna fly first-class to Monaco and do this NBA tour with [Dallas Maverick] A.C. Green...and [NBA star] Shaquille O'Neal is gonna come on board.

"It was everything I've always wanted to do, ever since I was a kid," he says. But the best part of all was that she needed him. "She had this treatment for a kids' math program she wanted to do. She wanted me to be the director of television production for her company," recalls Brockette, who in 1995 won an Emmy for producing a sports show for New England Cable TV.

There were, he realizes, a few danger signals. Among them was the talk about the prosperity gospel -- the idea that God will provide material things for the faithful. "She was like, 'I really believe that God has big plans for me. He's gonna make me a success.'" But Brockette decided he couldn't let that deter him. "When she talks about [religion], she looks really peaceful," he says.

In mid-June, he left his job to join Johnson. The offer was a $40,000 base salary, plus bonuses that would put him in "six figures," he says.

"She said, 'Jesus came to me and said that I should do this...I'd like to offer you this much money.' And I was like, 'How can you argue with Jesus?'"

Next time, Brockette might ask Him for a financial statement. Sean Brockette is now trying to collect a $3,000 bounced paycheck and worrying about how to pay September's rent. He isn't the only one in this fix. "[Carmen] owes me $2,000," says another former employee, who spoke on the condition that she not be identified. The woman also went to work for Johnson's company and is trying to collect a rubberized paycheck of her own.

Contacted last week, Johnson initially denied bouncing any checks, saying "that's not a true story." Told that the Dallas Observer had copies of the returned checks, she demanded to know which checks the Observer had before answering questions. Ultimately, a lawyer claiming to represent Johnson told the Observer that Johnson bounced the checks because "an investor" had failed to make a promised deposit, and that "Ms. Johnson is committed to" making good on the checks she wrote to the two.

As of press time, neither had been paid.

Their stories begin late last spring, when both were looking for sports-marketing jobs. "I called information for a similar name, and they gave me two names and numbers," recalls the woman, a 31-year-old "marketing, promotions, and event specialist." She followed the lead and reached Signature Sports Marketing. She met Johnson on June 11.

"She seemed a very classy lady," says the former employee. "I thought she really had it together. She told me she was an investment banker at a boutique firm." Like the woman, Brockette was given to understand that Carmen Johnson was an investment banker, wealthy in her own right. Johnson said that she had invested athletes' money in her "investment banking" career, and that she had access to athletes and capital alike.

According to a letter from Johnson's attorney, Johnson has a bachelor's degree from Sonoma State University in California and a master's in business administration from Amber University. The letter also states that Johnson worked "as an Investment Banker and as a financial analyst" at unnamed firms in Texas. Amber University, an obscure business school in East Dallas, would not confirm Johnson graduated, though Sonoma State University in California did.

The former employee says that Johnson claimed she had been involved in the Dallas Independent School District's "Math and Basketball," a pilot program tried in 28 DISD schools last spring. On this count, DISD backs her up. "It worked real well," says Doris Peterson, director of mathematics for DISD. "We had teachers come for training, and they had a consultant flown in here to show the teachers how they could uses mathematics concepts in basketball." According to Peterson, after each Mavericks game, DISD students would crunch numbers, coming up with assorted statistics.

"I was really, really impressed with the Math and Basketball program," recalls the ex-employee. "And that's basically what she was hiring me for, was to be the director of the program. We were going to take the program to four cities: Portland, New York, Houston, and Dallas. The CAUSE thing was just supposed to be a sidebar."

The "CAUSE thing" is Christian Athletes United for Spiritual Empowerment, a ministry to professional athletes. The ministry, founded by former Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White and a handful of other NFL players known for proclaiming their religious beliefs on prime time, is run by the Rev. Keith Johnson, the Minnesota Vikings' high-profile chaplain. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, CAUSE boasts hundreds of professional athletes as members and aims to provide not only spiritual, but also financial counseling to its flock.

A recording at CAUSE's Minneapolis number said that Carmen Johnson served as the "coordinator" for a recent CAUSE summit, held July 8-11 at the Four Seasons hotel in Irving.

Because she was so impressed with Johnson, the former employee turned down a job offer with the Carleson Marketing Group, a large travel concern. On June 21, she started her job with Signature at an annual salary of $60,000, plus bonuses virtually guaranteed to put her at "at least six figures."

"[Johnson] told me we'd all be driving Porsches," she recalls. Right away, she found, Math and Basketball took a back seat. "Because she was so busy with CAUSE, [Johnson] gave me a 'to do' list," she says. "Calling speakers, calling vendors, finding out what they'd been paid and what they were owed, finding photographers."

About a week after the woman started, the deal changed. She wouldn't be getting paid until after the summit, on July 12, and she wouldn't be getting the $4,000 she expected. The woman decided to "suck it up" and take the $2,000 she was offered to show how gung ho she was about her new position.

Her enthusiasm didn't last. Her $2,000 check was returned marked "insufficient funds." The check was written on a Charles Schwab account. "I called [a Schawb broker], who told me the check-writing features had been taken off the account in May," says the woman.

Meanwhile, Brockette was impressed. Based on what Brockette saw at the summit, and on what he says were Johnson's instructions, he began aggressively marketing a new "partnership" between Johnson's company and DISD.

"I was out there selling $50,000 sponsorships to Fortune 500 companies," Brockette says. Brockette is referring to "Math Can Be Fun," a program he marketed to companies such as Frito Lay, Apple Computer, and Intel on behalf of Johnson's company. According to marketing materials Brockette worked up and sent out on Signature's behalf, Math Can Be Fun was to be a five-year partnership with DISD. In exchange for $50,000, $75,000, or $100,000 sponsorships, the companies would "have a clear association with high-profile, clean image professional athletes" who would explain to students in 158 DISD schools "how mathematics is relevant in their daily lives."

According to two DISD spokespersons, however, the program was never approved. And it appears that Signature Sports Marketing never had firm commitments from any professional athletes -- much less the four high-profile basketball players whose names were mentioned to corporations to help sell the program.

DISD's Peterson says Johnson mentioned the program in passing some time ago, but it was never actually approved by the DISD.

"She told me she was going to get A.C. Green, Michael Finley, David Robinson, and Cynthia Cooper," says Brockette. "And that's what I told the corporations, based on her representation." Unfortunately, nobody checked with the athletes. Agents for three of the four say they have never heard of Carmen Johnson. The fourth could not be contacted by press time.

According to a letter from Johnson's attorney, "Ms. Johnson is unaware of any representations made to potential sponsors that professional athletes had already committed to be a part of the program." Johnson's attorney writes that his client "instructed" Brockette "to represent that professional athletes were targeted for the program," but that "Signature had not yet determined" who they would be.

In any event, no sponsorship money was ever collected. Brockette's first paycheck, also written on the Charles Schwab account, also bounced.

For the last month, he's been trying to collect his $3,000, not to mention looking for that great job.

"You know, I kinda knew better," he concedes. "I mean, first of all, to get Shaquille O'Neal to even, like, fart in your general direction is gonna cost you $250,000. And I asked her. I was like, 'Carmen, where are we gonna get the money for all this?' And she was like, 'I can't believe you just asked me that.'" He shakes his head. "I know I should have checked her out," he says, between sending out résumés, still hoping for that six-figure "sports marketing" gig.

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