It was happy news, and Elizabeth Faeth meant to share it. On March 9, 1995, the legislative assistant to U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson wrote her boss a note, informing the congresswoman that Faeth and her husband were expecting their first child.
Faeth had been on Johnson's congressional staff for about nine months, and thought things were going pretty well. The congresswoman recently had even given Faeth a $5,000-a-year raise.
But the day after sending Johnson her happy note, Faeth was handed her first written performance review. The evaluation, delivered by one of Johnson's assistants, found Faeth wanting in every single one of her job skills. It concluded with the news that Faeth was being fired, and had two weeks left on the payroll.
According to several former employees, pregnancy and motherhood do not fit into Johnson's vision of an efficient congressional office. Women become lazy after they get pregnant, current and former employees say Johnson has told them, a shocking sentiment coming from a 61-year-old grandmother and former nurse who supported the much ballyhooed Family Medical Leave Act and professes in her campaign literature to be a "staunch supporter of women's issues."
But by daring to conceive while in Johnson's employ, Faeth became just one in a series of pregnant staffers who say they were mistreated or unfairly dismissed by the two-term Democrat from Dallas.
Johnson's disdain, however, is not limited to employees who dare to get pregnant while on her payroll. The congresswoman also will not tolerate staffers who don't eagerly drive her to and from work, do her laundry, move her furniture, pick up her dry cleaning, or accept her late-night phone calls when she cannot sleep.
Johnson expects her employees to be always at her beck and call, so they "volunteer" for turns in a chauffeur rotation. By edict, Johnson allows none of her staffers to leave work until she is done for the day and ready to be driven home. Her entire congressional staff--down to the mail router--is expected to stay on the job, even if there is nothing to be done, until Johnson releases them for the evening.
All of which helps explain why, during four years as a congresswoman, Johnson has racked up one of the highest turnover rates on Capitol Hill, firing or running off more than 50 staffers from her Washington and Dallas offices.
Thus far, Johnson's staff--which is limited by law to 18--has turned over the equivalent of almost three times in just two terms. Though Johnson's defenders point out that the Hill is demanding turf, its rigors do not explain why Johnson has run through staffers at a pace twice that of other Texas members of her 1992 freshman legislative class.
During 25 years in the public arena--as a Texas state representative, state senator, and U.S. congresswoman--Johnson has always painted herself as a compassionate champion of the underdog. But behind closed office doors, Johnson exhibits a maliciousness that stands in sharp relief to her public image.
In interviews with former and present employees--more than 20 in all--a portrait emerges of a meanspirited woman who chews up and spits out employees with abandon.
Current and former employees describe her as paranoid, saying Johnson frequently accuses her employees of being spies or of stealing from her. They say Johnson is also imperious, requiring an escort or entourage to accompany her wherever she goes.
Johnson's tyranny and self-aggrandizement is not the by-product of achieving notable political stature. She is a second-term representative in the minority party, and remains a bit player in national politics, a bench warmer who has introduced only three pieces of legislation and holds no substantial committee positions.
Johnson's most notable political achievement to date, in fact, is the absurd lengths she went to during Texas' redistricting to guarantee herself a safe election. The state's congressional map has now been thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court, plunging 13 congressional races into chaos.
Many of Johnson's current and former staffers interviewed by the Dallas Observer are so fearful of what they see as Johnson's vindictive nature that they would only speak if their names were not used. Others who still work on Capitol Hill--or hope to--claim no elected official would ever hire them again if it were known that they spoke negatively about the congresswoman.
Getting rid of pregnant staffers, the current and former employees say, is only one example of the congresswoman's menacing management style. There are so many other examples, they say, that it is hard to pick the most outrageous of Johnson's abuses.
Perhaps it was the time Johnson demanded that an employee pay for $2,000 in repairs to the undercarriage of the congresswoman's gold Mercedes. The staffer, who denied causing the damage, had chauffeured Johnson around Washington in the car, and used it to perform Johnson's personal errands, like fetching the congresswoman's dry cleaning. (Johnson now makes employees drive their own cars while chauffeuring her around, minimizing the risk to her Mercedes.)
Or maybe the worst was earlier this year, when Johnson discovered that some candy was missing from a crystal jar on her office desk. Johnson had Capitol Hill police install a 24-hour surveillance camera in her private office.
When she has been questioned in the past about her office's rapid turnover, Johnson has attributed the problem to her high expectations and low tolerance for poor work performance. Johnson refused repeated requests from the Observer for an interview. "My advisors told me not to," says Johnson. "They say the Observer destroys black people and doesn't do anything positive for the black community."
In her bid for a third term, Johnson is now facing her toughest challenge from one of her former employees, whom Johnson fired for no apparent reason.
Lisa Hembry managed Johnson's Dallas office for seven months before she was axed, and is partly waging her campaign on the issue of Johnson's tumultuous management.
"If you have a home office and a district office in constant turmoil, how can you get anything done?" Hembry asks. "She has proven she cannot get along with other people."
Pinpointing Johnson's most egregious treatment of her staff may be difficult. But former staffers agree on one thing: Working for Eddie Bernice Johnson is hell.
"Eddie Bernice Johnson ruined me," says Elizabeth Faeth in a telephone interview from her home in northern Virginia. "I'll never be able to work on Capitol Hill again."
By the time Faeth wrote the note heralding her pregnancy to Johnson, the congresswoman already suspected that her employee was expecting. According to three sources with firsthand knowledge of the incident, the congresswoman instructed her administrative assistant to find some way to get rid of Faeth, before Faeth officially told Johnson about the pregnancy. That way, Johnson could claim she didn't know she was firing a pregnant woman.
But Faeth was too quick in sharing the good news with her boss. The day after Faeth disclosed the pregnancy, the administrative assistant handed Faeth a written performance evaluation. The evaluation ended with a termination notice.
(The administrative assistant--a onetime aide to former House Speaker Tom Foley--eventually grew so disgusted with Johnson's behavior that she walked out of the office one day and never returned to work.)
Just three months' pregnant, Faeth was devastated. A law school graduate who helped pay her way through school by clerking for a judge in Oklahoma, Faeth thought she was doing a good job.
Left without medical insurance, Faeth decided to fight back. She filed a grievance with the newly formed House Office of Fair Labor Practices claiming she was unjustly fired. During settlement negotiations, Faeth says, Johnson offered to hire her back at a lower-level, lower-paying position. Faeth would be required to sit by herself and not talk with any other members of the staff. Faeth declined the humiliating offer.
Johnson eventually agreed to pay Faeth $28,000 to settle the case, equal to about one year's pay. Though her office and a legislative fund paid the money, Johnson conceded no fault. By agreement, the terms of the settlement were supposed to remain confidential, and Faeth was happy to begin putting the whole nightmare behind her.
But despite the confidentiality agreement, Johnson had more to say on the matter, most of it spin control for the benefit of reporters wondering why Johnson's office had fired yet another employee.
Johnson told The Dallas Morning News and The Hill--a newspaper covering Congress--that Faeth had not been fired at all, but had resigned because of a poor performance evaluation.
Johnson also claimed that she had no idea Faeth was pregnant when the two women parted ways. Furthermore, Johnson insisted that Faeth's complaint was against the administrative assistant who handed Faeth the evaluation form, not the congresswoman herself.
Former staffers say Johnson's version of the incident bore little relation to reality but was a way for Johnson to shield herself from criticism for firing a pregnant staffer.
And Faeth wasn't the first, or last, Johnson employee for whom motherhood also meant unemployment. A year or so before, Johnson had done much the same thing to Karen Tate.
A press secretary for Johnson early in her first term, Tate was excited when she told the congresswoman that she was pregnant.
According to several staffers, Johnson's reaction was less than enthusiastic. "I suspected as such," Johnson replied icily, "with all the work you've missed lately." (Tate had missed no unusual amount of work, according to the office manager at the time.)
Not only wasn't Johnson happy for Tate, sources say, she was downright insensitive, once making a pregnant Tate carry the congresswoman's luggage through an airport terminal to the departure gate. From the moment Tate announced that she was pregnant, she could do no right in the congresswoman's eyes, sources say. Not long after disclosing her pregnancy, Tate was fired. Asked at the time by a reporter about Tate's dismissal, Johnson said the pregnancy had nothing to do with it. In fact, Johnson told the reporter, she had actually talked Tate out of having an abortion.
That was a complete fabrication, sources say. "When you leave, she always concocts atrocious stuff about you to protect herself," says a former staffer.
Earlier this year, another member of Johnson's congressional staff came forward saying she received similar treatment.
The woman claims she was canned not long after becoming a new mother because she could no longer be at the congresswoman's beck and call all day and night, sources say. For the 2 1/2 years before having her child, the worker had been required to escort Johnson to evening events, move Johnson's furniture and belongings three times, clean Johnson's apartment, do her grocery shopping, and field numerous middle-of-the-night phone calls.
The woman has filed a complaint with the House Office of Fair Labor Practices, claiming that she--like Faeth before her--was unjustly terminated. The case is pending.
It seems a dubious track record for a congresswoman whose current campaign brochures proclaim "Re-elect Eddie Bernice Johnson. Leadership families can count on."
"She's a tough boss, but a good boss," says Mike Greene, Johnson's current press secretary. "I've worked for her almost two years now. They said it couldn't be done. But seriously, she doesn't ask any more of her staff than she does of herself."
Perhaps Johnson has simply had an incredible run of bad luck, attracting a disproportionate share of incompetent slackers. What makes that premise doubtful, however, is that many of the 18 former staffers contacted by the Observer had excellent credentials before working for Johnson and went on to good positions after leaving.
Take, for example, one of Greene's predecessors in the press secretary's job, Peter Woolfolk. A veteran staffer of several congressional offices, Woolfolk had finished a stint working on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign for the Democratic National Committee when he went to work as press secretary for the recently elected Johnson.
By all accounts, Woolfolk did a good job spreading his new boss' name and face around the media. He set up a weekly cable and radio show for her, arranged for her to appear on the Today Show, and got her name mentioned in several national magazines. Not bad for an obscure rookie congresswoman.
Woolfolk also originated and helped the district office organize for Johnson's constituents back in Dallas a series of seminars, in conjunction with the Federal Home Mortgage Corporation, on first-time home ownership.
But Woolfolk says he began to fall out of favor with Johnson when he got fed up with her insistence on being driven to and from work when she lived only six blocks from the Capitol.
Woolfolk found it particularly irksome--and said as much--when he once had to leave a Sunday dinner at his parents' home to pick up Johnson at the airport. Johnson eventually fired him after about six months, giving the excuse that she was downsizing the office.
"I knew shortly after I got there it wasn't going to work," says Woolfolk, who is now serving as Clinton's campaign press secretary for the state of Delaware. "I had worked for other members of Congress; some real decent people. She wasn't the same caliber of person."
Eddie Bernice Johnson's long political career has been marked by numerous barrier-breaking achievements, and marred by controversy.
The daughter of a Waco store owner and preacher who impressed upon his four children the importance of a college education, Johnson earned a bachelor of arts degree from St. Mary's at Notre Dame in 1955, a bachelor of science degree from Texas Christian University in 1967, and a master's in public administration from Southern Methodist University in 1976.
In 1956, she became the first black nurse hired at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Dallas, eventually working her way up to the position of head psychiatric nurse.
Johnson first made a name for herself in Dallas when she organized a boycott of downtown department stores that prohibited blacks from trying on hats and shoes.
It was merchant prince Stanley Marcus, in fact, who helped launch Johnson's political career by putting her on the department store's payroll with the understanding that she would run for office.
In 1972, Johnson took Marcus up on his offer. The recently divorced mother of a 12-year-old son, Johnson mounted a dogged door-to-door campaign and emerged victorious, becoming Dallas' first black member of the Texas House of Representatives.
In 1977, after winning three consecutive terms, she resigned her legislative seat and accepted an appointment from then-President Jimmy Carter as regional director of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In a portent of things to come, Johnson did not endear herself to the HEW staff with her withering tirades and her habit of pitting staffers against one another, recalls one of her former employees: "She liked to keep things stirred up."
She took a hiatus from public service in 1981, after her father died, but would not remain gone for long. Johnson dabbled in business, launching a consulting firm, losing money in real estate, and co-founding a minority-owned bank south of the Trinity River that collapsed within five years under the weight of too many speculative loans. In 1986, Johnson returned to what she knew best: getting elected.
Setting her sights higher than the Texas House, she ran for a state Senate seat and handily beat state Representative Jesse Oliver in the Democratic primary, which was effectively the real election for the post. She headed down to Austin as the first black state senator in Texas since Reconstruction.
But her performance in the state Senate was far from stellar. Still a few years removed from Washington, she already began developing a reputation for abrasiveness. In 1989, Texas Monthly named her to its biennial list of the state's 10 worst legislators. Among other things, the magazine criticized her for using anger as her primary legislative tool.
During her first term as a state senator, Johnson drafted a bill increasing state goals for minority contracting, but then came under fire for allegedly using her office to help win state contracts for an architect from San Antonio who was her close friend.
Then there was the smelly airport deal. In 1988, the D/FW Airport Board angered blacks by awarding a huge newspaper concession stand contract to a company with an abysmal track record of minority participation. In a weak attempt at rectifying the problem, the board handed out to minority business people subcontracts for 11 concession stands. Two of the lucrative newsstand concessions went to state Senator Johnson, raising in and out of the minority business community immediate howls of favoritism.
The negative sentiment that Johnson's sweetheart deal engendered at the time in the black community was summed up by one minority leader in an interview with Dallas Times Herald columnist Jim Schutze. "I always felt black officeholders were supposed to use their office and the public trust to open up doors for black business people, not for themselves," the community leader said.
But Johnson's biggest controversy by far while she was in state office--and the one that is still wreaking havoc on the Texas congressional delegation--was her stewardship of congressional redistricting after the 1990 census.
Johnson found herself in charge of the state Senate's efforts to redraw the congressional boundaries, a fortuitous circumstance for a politician who was going to run for Congress herself in 1992.
Redistricting is always a bloody, bitter process, difficult for the public to follow. Incumbents, potential challengers, party leaders, and interest groups battle to draw district lines that will best serve their interests and re-elections for the next 10 years. It is one of the most critical power struggles in national politics, and Johnson found herself in the driver's seat. No plan was going anywhere without her support, and that gave her plenty of leverage to trade for what she wanted--a nice, safe district for herself.
Initially, Johnson tried to draw a compact minority district for her own use that would all but guarantee her landslide victories in the 1992 congressional primary and general election.
But her first plan took so many minority voters away from the districts of fellow Democrats John Bryant and Martin Frost that the two incumbents would have been dangerously exposed to the Republican wave already sweeping Texas.
Johnson threatened a lawsuit if her colleagues would not approve her first plan, but eventually relented and went back to the drawing board. Critics say any of several plans would have given Johnson a district where she could win, but Johnson wanted a district where she would win by a landslide, one that was 50 percent black and 89 percent Democratic.
In order to do so without disrupting Bryant's and Frost's districts, Johnson wound up with a strange configuration resembling a squashed octopus, its body encompassing downtown Dallas and parts of southern Dallas, and its tentacles picking up pockets of minority voters in Grand Prairie, Richardson, and Plano.
Subtle it was not.
"If Eddie Bernice had just been more reasonable," says an aide to Congressman Bryant, "redistricting by the courts would never have come about."
As a major architect of the redistricting debacle, Johnson once again showed up on Texas Monthly's list of 10 worst legislators, but that was the least of the fallout from her determination to craft herself a safe district.
After rounds of appeals and legal wrangles, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided that--in the name of fairness--it simply would not swallow the gerrymandering of Texas' congressional districts. A panel of federal judges had found Johnson's oddly shaped political animal particularly offensive, saying it bore "the odious imprint of racial apartheid."
The high court rejected Johnson's District 30 and two others as unacceptable, wiping out the results of many of this year's congressional primaries. Candidates in 13 congressional districts are now running in free-for-alls this November, open to all candidates willing to plunk down the $2,500 filing fee.
Districts where no candidate receives a majority will see runoffs in December, possibly leaving the complexion of Texas' congressional delegation unclear until then.
Eddie Bernice Johnson got just what she set out for: a $133,000-a-year job representing in Washington, D.C., the constituents of District 30--the first black woman from Texas to serve in Congress since Barbara Jordan in the late 1970s.
But, as the saying goes, Eddie Bernice Johnson is no Barbara Jordan. (Although not many legislators from any state can match Jordan for eloquence or integrity.)
Immediately upon arriving in Washington, Johnson found herself in hot water with the Federal Elections Commission, which fined her $44,000 for campaign finance violations committed during her 1992 race. Johnson claims that she was the one who noticed the problems and immediately brought them to the attention of the FEC. The FEC fined her for missing filing deadlines, improperly reporting some political action committee contributions, and accepting personal contributions in excess of $1,000. The latter charge concerned a $16,000 personal loan a local doctor had made to Johnson.
The congresswoman said she didn't realize loans were subject to limits, and blamed the mistakes on her former campaign treasurer, Dallas lawyer Eric Moye.
Since arriving in Washington, Johnson has achieved little of significance legislatively. The three bills she has sponsored to date have called for renaming a federal office building, awarding a posthumous congressional medal of honor to a Texas woman who served in the Navy in World War II, and increasing funding for osteoporosis research.
As the only Texas member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, she helped preserve funds for DART. And she fought hard against proposed cuts in federal spending for the B-2 bomber, which would have meant a loss of jobs at the Northrop Grumman Corporation in Grand Prairie. Johnson was handsomely rewarded for her efforts. In one day last March, she received two campaign contributions totaling $9,000 from the Employees of Northrop Grumman Political Action Committee.
Even some of Johnson's detractors say it is unfair to judge her thin legislative record too harshly. Freshmen legislators spend much of their time learning the lay of the land, and rarely get on the most influential committees. And by the time Johnson entered her second term, Republicans had taken control of the House, making it difficult for Democrats to pursue their legislative agendas.
Johnson does have a reputation for working long hours and studying the issues coming up for a vote. But her real strength is constituent services--making sure her office responds when a citizen is having trouble getting veterans benefits, or feels he has been unfairly fired from a federal job. They are the services that earn politicians supporters one by one.
Former staffers say Johnson could better serve her constituents if she had some concrete legislative agenda. In the seven months that John Cones served as Johnson's administrative assistant in Washington, he says, "Johnson seemed more interested in getting re-elected, going shopping, and taking trips than working for the people who had elected her." (Johnson has been to Taiwan and mainland China four times in the past four years.)
A few months ago, a significant segment of Dallas' black community held a press conference to accuse Johnson publicly of turning her back on them.
The Reverend Frederick Haynes, the feisty activist minister of Friendship West Baptist Church in southwest Oak Cliff, and his congregants gathered in front of the church. They denounced Johnson for failing to support their bid to win a multimillion-dollar federal contract from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to acquire and rehabilitate a low-income apartment complex and high-tech learning center located near their church.
Johnson instead backed a corporation whose board of directors is composed of wealthy white men from North Dallas. The corporation, Dean Learning Center, ultimately won the contract, though it is not clear how much sway Johnson's support had.
In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Johnson claimed the Friendship West bidders had not contacted her until after the deadline for the proposal had passed.
Haynes says Johnson is lying. "We called all the local black leaders--from Mayor [Ron] Kirk to state Senator Royce West--and asked them what they needed from us in order to support our efforts. Johnson was the only one who didn't return our calls. Then we sent her a letter, which she did not respond to until well after the bidding process deadline was over," Haynes says.
Such controversy has engulfed Johnson before, but it has never done her in. Black businessman and political columnist Rufus Shaw likens Johnson to fighter Mike Tyson. "You can say bad things about both of them, but they still always win," Shaw told the Observer.
This election will probably be no exception. Johnson's new court-designed congressional district has only slightly diminished her advantage. She lost 5 percent of her old district's black voters, but picked up 3 percent more Hispanics. Although a big chunk of her Democratic constituency has been supplanted by the Republican-dominated city of Irving, former Dallas Democratic Party Chair Ken Molberg thinks the chance of a runoff is slight.
But Johnson is not going easy on her most credible challenger. Johnson is making no secret of her disdain for former employee Lisa Hembry, who owns a public-relations and marketing firm and is the government affairs director for the Greater Dallas Association of Realtors.
Johnson recently told the Washington Times that she fired Hembry because of Hembry's overriding interest "in the wealthier, Anglo parts of the district. She had an attitude of contempt for the working poor people of the district."
Hembry dismisses the charge as "absurd." And her former colleagues from Johnson's office claim Hembry worked diligently with all sectors of the diverse District 30.
If anyone is guilty of exhibiting an attitude of contempt, they say, it is Eddie Bernice Johnson. But then, that is nothing new.
Eddie Bernice Johnson is ever vigilant of the thievery and spying that she apparently believes threaten to infect her office.
A few years ago, Johnson contacted the Capitol Hill police and told them she believed two former staffers had used her credit card without permission to purchase plane tickets for themselves. The police conducted a formal investigation, which included interviews with the accused women.
Johnson had already had her own administrative assistant look into the matter, and the assistant found the charges dubious. The assistant believes Johnson turned the matter over to police, knowing the accusations were groundless, just to send a message to the former workers.
The assistant's conclusions proved right. According to Sergeant Bill Nichols, a spokesman with the criminal investigation division of the Capitol Hill police, "We closed the case and found no evidence of criminal misconduct. It was a misunderstanding regarding [Johnson's] credit card bill."
In 1994, a scheduler who had worked for Johnson for a year quit her Washington office. "It was the single most disappointing and difficult experience I've had in public service," the former scheduler says. "It was Mrs. Johnson's personality. One day she would be fine; the next day it was as if she had stepped into a big black hole. And her M.O., if you will, was to keep staff fighting among themselves. She would tell one staffperson what another had allegedly said about them behind their back. Then do the same to the other staffer. It was insane."
After leaving, she says, the scheduler discovered just how petty Johnson could get. Before leaving, the woman had asked to be paid for a week of vacation time she had not taken the year before. The payment was up to Johnson's discretion. The acting administrative assistant at the time said Johnson had approved the payment request, but several weeks went by and the money did not arrive.
The scheduler sent Johnson a letter, reminding the congresswoman how many weekends and late nights the scheduler had worked, even walking to work when a snowstorm had shut down the city's mass transit.
Johnson faxed back a scathing letter, excoriating the former employee for all the days she had come in late and left early--"which was not true," the woman says.
"Then she accused me of having stolen her white coffee pot. I had never even seen her white coffee pot," the woman says.
Johnson seems often to accuse her employees of crimes, not necessarily after they have quit or been fired.
A few years ago, Johnson went to China on a trip funded by a nonprofit cultural foundation and set up by a Dallas furniture dealer with whom Johnson did business. The congresswoman took with her a young legislative assistant, a Princeton graduate who spoke Chinese.
Once considered the congresswoman's golden girl, the legislative assistant had fallen out of favor with the congresswoman for no apparent reason. But it didn't matter. The assistant says she was becoming increasingly disillusioned with Johnson, and annoyed at the way the congresswoman wasted staffers' time by insisting someone always accompany her.
Two or three staffers were expected to escort Johnson when she went to the floor of Congress to vote. Sometimes the staffers would wait all day, hanging out in an anteroom with nothing to do, as Johnson talked to her colleagues, went to leadership meetings--she is the House's Democratic deputy whip--and returned to the floor to vote again.
Sometimes Johnson would fly home to Dallas on Friday nights, the assistant says, and want to have her nails done upon arriving. In those instances two staffers--one who flew in with her, the other waiting at the airport--were expected to accompany Johnson like ladies-in-waiting to her lengthy appointments with a "nail technician" that often lasted until 1 a.m.
The assistant didn't like the way Johnson treated certain members of the staff, particularly two Jewish staffers, who Johnson called nosy and untrustworthy. "You know how Jews are" was one of Johnson's favorite phrases, says the woman. Eventually the woman's own trustworthiness was called into question by Johnson.
On the last day of their weeklong trip to China, on the way to the airport, Johnson and the aide stopped at a market to do some last-minute shopping. Somewhere along the way, Johnson lost her wallet. Shortly after returning to Dallas, the legislative assistant learned from other staffers that she was the one Johnson suspected of stealing the wallet.
"First of all, you need to understand I come from an affluent family. I didn't need to steal. I thought, this is the last straw. I'm not going to take this anymore, and I quit," says the woman, who is now in law school in the Pacific Northwest.
Another worker who fled Johnson's employ is more charitable in her assessment of the congresswoman. Remarkably, she is the employee who had to pay Johnson $2,000 for purportedly damaging Johnson's Mercedes while performing chauffeur duties.
Although several staff members with firsthand knowledge say they saw the reimbursement check for the repair bill, the woman involved recently said she would "neither confirm nor deny" the incident.
"I just don't think it is appropriate to discuss," says the woman. "It's a question of loyalty, whether it's deserved or not."
When the woman resigned from Johnson's staff more than a year ago, she had said she felt betrayed by the congresswoman, who had promised her a promotion and then gave it to someone else.
"I still feel I was betrayed," she says now. "But I took it too personally. I got too close to her emotionally. I was with her all the time, but I allowed that to happen. My overall perspective on the congresswoman has changed in a year and a half. I think it is tough being a woman in Congress, especially a black woman, and dealing with all those white males over 50. Coming here, she became a small fish in a big pond. When she yells at her staff, it's a release of frustration from being beaten up all day in committee and on the floor."
Johnson is temperamental and erratic, the former staffer concedes, and many of her ex-employees have legitimate complaints. "But do voters care how congresspeople treat their staff, or whether they break a few rules, if they ultimately do good? No matter how bad she is, I believe she has a good heart and cares for the people no one had cared about before."
John Cones, for one, thinks the public ought to know how Johnson treats her staff, and how she breaks the rules.
This summer, Cones resigned after seven months as Johnson's administrative assistant, and publicly accused Johnson of using congressional staff to do campaign work during office hours--a violation of congressional rules. Johnson denied the accusation at the time, but at least one other former staffer tells the Observer that a routine part of her job for two years was contacting campaign contributors by phone from Johnson's congressional office.
After he quit Johnson's staff, Cones also wanted to tell the media why.
A 51-year-old California lawyer, Cones is originally from Beaumont and worked in legislative affairs in Austin after law school. While practicing entertainment law in California, he developed an abiding interest in film industry reform, and decided he wanted to become a lobbyist. He thought he should get some congressional office work experience first. He spent six months as the legislative director for Michigan Democratic congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins, who came under investigation for financial improprieties. After three lengthy interviews with Eddie Bernice Johnson, Cones was hired on as her administrative assistant in January 1996.
Within weeks of his hiring, Cones says, his relationship with the congresswoman soured appreciably.
It all started, he says, when he decided to stop participating in the driving rotation, in which staffers are assigned days--including weekend days and nights--to drive the congresswoman to and from work and appointments.
Cones says another staffer strongly suggested that he "volunteer" to participate in the rotation, and he did so at first. But he began to resent the imposition, especially when his shift fell on weekends. Johnson did not even reimburse the staff for mileage.
Sarah Pekkanen, a reporter for The Hill, says it is "rare but not unheard of for congressmen to be driven by their staffs. In the staffer's car? That's even worse."
When he dropped out of the chauffeur squad, Cones says, Johnson's communication with him went from limited to almost nonexistent. She narrowed the scope of his authority considerably, making him little more than a $60,000-a-year glorified office boy, and ignored his memos asking for additional tasks and suggesting projects.
Things went from bad to worse. Cones says he balked at Johnson's requests for him and other staffers to do campaign-related work on office time, like filing FEC reports that had been sent by Federal Express from the district office, and faxing campaign literature back to the district office. Cones says Johnson punished him by taking away his assigned parking spot and reneging on her promise to give him a semiprivate office.
Cones admits these are small indiscretions, but sees them as part of a pattern of arrogance on Johnson's part when added to the personal chores Johnson expected her staff to perform.
Even two staffers from the Dallas office who had traveled to Washington to attend seminars were assigned moving duty, Cones says. Johnson later told the press that staffers moved her things after hours. But according to Cones and one of the staffers involved, they did the work on government time in the afternoons, and in one instance Johnson actually called them out of the seminar to help.
The coup de grace for Cones, he says, came in mid-July when Johnson put a letter in his box from one of the neighbors at Johnson's new northern Virginia apartment complex. The neighbor was seeking help with a situation involving her son. Apparently, the son had been arrested in D.C. for urinating in public. The police discovered he was still on probation in Dallas for stealing food from a hotel seven years before.
Johnson did not tell Cones what she wanted him to do about the matter, so he discussed it with a caseworker back in the congresswoman's Dallas district office. The caseworker told Cones that the office stayed out of criminal matters, and advised him to suggest that the mother get an attorney.
When Johnson learned Cones had contacted the district office, she went ballistic, he says, chastising him for not handling the matter himself. Cones explained that it might not look good for her office to be interfering in criminal matters. He also pointed out that neither the mother nor his son was a constituent.
"He's a constituent if I say he is," he says she shouted at him.
Cones faxed her a letter of resignation the next day. When the press came calling, Johnson characterized Cones as "a problem employee whom she had planned on firing by the end of the year."
She told a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter that she suspected Cones of being a spy, and alleged that he had rifled through papers on her desk. Johnson claimed Cones' espionage was the reason she had a security camera installed in her office. That explanation seems curious, Cones says, since he was the one Johnson put in charge of having the camera installed.
Cones says he would not sit by and let Johnson spread lies about him. In a press release he sent to Johnson and members of the press, Cones challenged her to put up or shut up. He challenged Johnson to an "honesty" test, in which Johnson would have to back up her disparaging remarks about Cones' job performance or let them fall flat for all to see.
"Dallas voters deserve more than false and unfounded assertions from their public servant," Cones wrote. "Because if she can get away with making false allegations against one former employee, she may do the same with others, or even deal dishonestly with issues of importance to her constituents." Johnson never responded.
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