Former Augusta general counsel at home, in debt

Chiquita Johnson’s time as Augusta general counsel doesn’t appear to have helped her career.

The city attorney from October 2007 to January 2010, Johnson agreed to resign last year in exchange for a nine-month severance package.

The package approved by seven Augusta Commission members paid Johnson what she would have received for nine months’ work and bought out her Augusta lease, bringing the total to at least $110,000. She had a $125,000 salary, $7,200 car allowance, $6,250 in deferred annual compensation, health, dental and other benefits,

The package was three months more than Johnson was guaranteed by City Administrator Fred Russell in the employment contract they signed in March 2008, but it won Johnson’s consent not to sue the city or disparage the mayor or Russell, who likewise cannot speak poorly of Johnson.

Johnson spoke very briefly last week with a reporter, saying, “Nobody was interested at the time, and I don't think anyone is interested now.” She then declared the preceding conversation to have been “off the record.”

An Emory Law School graduate with an undergraduate degree in journalism, Johnson’s tenure in Augusta began to unravel not long after it began.

She was hired as a staff attorney at the same time the commission tried to hire Pope Langstaff, then the city attorney for Macon, Ga., to replace Eugene Jessup, who was fired after only four months as Augusta general counsel.

“It was all about hiring an attorney from outside Augusta,” Commissioner Jerry Brigham recalled.

Jessup had been hired in November 2006, at the same time as current city attorney Andrew MacKenzie. But when Langstaff turned down the job in Augusta, the commission named Johnson as interim general counsel on Nov. 7, 2007.

She was made permanent on Feb. 20, 2008.

Within days, Johnson had missed a federal court deadline to respond to a lawsuit alleging unfair purchasing practices filed by the Association for Fair Government and three Augusta business owners, although a U.S. district judge later denied the plaintiffs’ request for a default judgment against the city.

During 2008 and 2009, the commission spent many hours behind closed doors with the city attorney, while the city legal department, now the gateway for all open records requests, went to great lengths to block routine requests by The Augusta Chronicle for basic information related to business licenses and spending on outside counsel. 

But the commission did not appear to take notice until late 2009, when Johnson presented two proposals before the body. One sought to restrict the media’s access to commissioners during commission meetings, and the other gave general counsel police powers to investigate any city office, employee or firm doing business with the city.

Around the same time, commissioners also learned of Johnson’s $5,000 spending spree on silk trees, single-serve coffee makers, a water cooler and other more necessary office items using her city Sam’s Club card.

They apparently hadn’t known about Johnson’s earlier trouble, unearthed by an Augusta Chronicle investigation, with government-issued credit cards. As deputy director of legal services for the Georgia Department of Public Safety, Johnson had been fired in February 2007 for using a state-issued American Express card to purchase personal items from the Home Shopping Network, drugstores, restaurants and clothing stores.

Today, Johnson remains a member in good standing with the Georgia Bar Association, according to the association’s records, which list her employer as the Augusta Law Department, with a Covington, Ga., address.

Johnson answered the telephone last week at the Covington home she has owned since before her employment in Augusta. Her name does not appear on any recent filings in court records accessible online; nor does it show up in a search of staff listings for government legal personnel.

Johnson, who applied for unemployment benefits earlier this year, continues to have financial difficulties.

In March, the Internal Revenue Service filed a federal tax lien against her for unpaid income taxes. Johnson owes $15,832 for taxes not paid in 2008 and $15,962 for unpaid 2009 income taxes, according to the lien.

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