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Former Director Sues City for Defamation

Ben Johnson, former director of emergency services, says his public dress-down during the car allowance fiasco was defamatory.

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Richmond's former emergency services coordinator has filed a $1 million defamation lawsuit against the city.

The charges stem from public comments made by city officials after Benjamin Johnson's resignation in April 2008, according to the suit, including former Chief Administrative Officer Sheila Hill-Christian.

An investigation by the city auditor revealed that Johnson was receiving an auto allowance from the city to offset wear and tear on his personal car, even though he drove a city-provided vehicle. The suit alleges that the city informed Johnson that the auto allowances were part of salary enhancements for employees.

The city auditor investigation began after reports that then-Mayor L. Douglas Wilder was receiving a $700-a-month auto allowance in addition to being chauffeured by a police detail in a maroon, city-owned Mercury Grand Marquis. Wilder repaid the city $25,900 for the total auto allowance up to that point in his term.

After Johnson's resignation, Hill-Christian said in a news release that although “[n]ormally we avoid discussing personnel matters to protect the privacy of any employees. … it is not accurate to compare Mr. Johnson's situation with that of the Mayor. When any employee has been aware of a problem for some time, and has had multiple opportunities to rectify it yet does not, they may find themselves in a situation similar to Mr. Johnson's. When the issue of the car allowance was brought to the Mayor's attention, he took immediate corrective action.”

Hill-Christian abruptly left her post three months after Johnson resigned. She works with Mayor Dwight Jones' administration as an independent consultant. City spokeswoman Tammy Hawley declines to comment on the lawsuit, citing policy not to discuss pending litigation.

Some of the most potentially revealing bits of the complaint may illuminate another topic altogether: the aborted Sept. 21, 2007, attempted eviction of School Board.

“In September 2007, City Officials, including members of the Mayor's senior staff, met in City Hall to review the plans already in place to have the City School Board evicted from City Hall,” the complaint says. “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. He refused to participate in the process, which has been declared illegal by the Courts.”

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