PROFILE: Johnson relishes going after corporate wrongdoers

Ken Johnson started his career reporting the news. Today, as comms director for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he shapes it. But in either role, finds Claire Atkinson, he's always been driven by truth.

Ken Johnson started his career reporting the news. Today, as comms director for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he shapes it. But in either role, finds Claire Atkinson, he's always been driven by truth.

"He's like Jackie Chan slaying all the beasts," says political pollster Frank Luntz of high-profile DC spokesman Ken Johnson. In recent months, PR and lobby firms have been coming at him thick and fast, but Johnson, communications director for the House Energy and Commerce Committee (HECC), wastes no time in kicking them aside. "We're always outgunned and outmanned," he admits. The HECC, chaired by Billy Tauzin (R-LA), is Congress' oldest, most powerful committee. It is always under siege because it decides whether to recommend new legislation and prosecutions in the event of corporate wrongdoing. In the past 18 months, Johnson has faced off against the likes of Ford and Firestone, Arthur Andersen, Enron, Global Crossing, Qwest, ImClone, and Martha Stewart. Ford and Firestone reportedly spent $2 million hiring 15 outside public affairs and lobby firms, in addition to in-house staff. That didn't stop the committee recommending new tire safety legislation, or the eventual ousting of Ford CEO Jac Nasser. Johnson, 51, proudly notes the number of CEOs that have departed their firms following investigations by the HECC. Among them are Enron's Ken Lay, Joseph Berardino at Arthur Andersen, WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers, and Joe Nacchio at Qwest. The committee, it appears, was instrumental in discovering that Andersen had shredded hundreds of Enron-related documents. "I battle PR people all the time," says Johnson, "but I have a healthy respect for them and the industry. Too many Fortune 500 companies and politicians dismiss the value of aggressive PR. It's often a last choice, not a first option. They are reactive instead of proactive." Johnson's reputation as a mover and shaker was recognized this year when he was included in Roll Call's Fabulous Fifty Congressional Staff. He has also been profiled in The New York Times. "He's the quickest flack in DC," says Luntz. "He's fast with a quip and a quote. He's got power and influence, but more importantly, he's got a brain." Though, he adds chillingly, "He can make your life miserable, and has no problem using the English language as a way to embarrass you." In addition to relaying the views of Tauzin - they're like two peas in a pod, say friends - Johnson and his four staffers proactively look for issues the HECC might want to take on. Based in Washington's Rayburn House Office Building, he gets about 150 phone calls a day in the midst of a crisis. Despite his popularity with reporters, Johnson says that breaking through the clutter is tough. He competes with hundreds of senators, committees, and subcommittees for time on the evening news. Johnson has a clear sense of social responsibility built up over years as a reporter. He began his career in newspapers at age 16, and stayed in journalism even as he went through school. Former roommate Mike Johnson, now running DC lobby firm OB-C Group, recalls Ken's early days on Illinois' Galesburg Register-Mail. "He did the work of three people, and took pictures too. But he was always in trouble with readers because he was so opinionated." From there, Johnson proceeded to work for a variety of local stations around the South, including the Louisiana Public Broadcasting Network. One of his career highlights was going undercover as a prisoner in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He discovered that prison guards were the source of guns and drugs, and his investigative report won him awards from both the AP and the New Orleans Press Club. Johnson says of the story, "I wouldn't do it again." He also won an American Film Institute award for a documentary he made about illegal waste dumping in the Louisiana bayou. After years at regional stations, Johnson got jaded - sick of the consultants influencing the news agenda. Having built a friendship with Tauzin, in 1993 he agreed to do a one-year stint as an aide, to see what it was like. "When you're a journalist you sit out in the hall, the doors are shut, and you get the sanitized version. I wanted to sit behind those doors, make the decisions, and do the sanitizing myself." Johnson has worked with Tauzin ever since, and it looks like it will stay that way for the foreseeable future. Johnson says the White House doesn't interest him, claiming he wouldn't have the same freedom as with Tauzin. "I think the biggest problem I pose for Billy is that I'm a little outspoken. Billy is a very public, high-profile person. He's not afraid to be controversial. I think we complement each other." One wonders what Johnson would have done differently had he worked for Martha Stewart, who was under investigation by the committee. "My first advice would be to say screw the lawyers," he says. "Then I would have just told the truth. The day after the controversial stock sale, I would have called a press conference, had her ball her eyes out, and say that she didn't know what she did was wrong. I would have told her to cooperate fully, and that would have been the end of the story." Instead, Johnson says that Stewart and her handlers have changed their story too many times. "We've reached the end of the road with Martha Stewart," he told CNN in September. While his take-no-prisoners attitude has made him enemies in DC, Johnson concludes that in the end, "truth is sacrosanct. To me, I'm just that aggressive in-your-face reporter still trying to get to the bottom of a good story." Given his tough talking, peers might be surprised to find he has a soft side. He recounts tenderly how he went to his 30th high school reunion and spotted his former sweetheart, Barbie. They were married soon after. ----------- Ken Johnson 1967-1984 Reporter at the Galesburg Register-Mail in Illinois (1967-1973). Various jobs as an anchor: WHBF-TV in Quad Cities, IA (1973-1975); Cincinnati's WCPO-TV (1975-1976), New Orleans' WLTV (1976-1984) 1984-1987 News director - Louisiana Public Broadcasting Network 1988-1993 Reporter, anchor - WBRZ-TV (Baton Rouge, LA) 1993-2000 Comms director for Billy Tauzin (R-LA) 2001-present Comms director and spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in