The Sony WikiLeaks Hack Gets an Education Angle — Sorta*

It’s not yet entirely clear who broke the story or how they both ended up writing on such a similar thing but both LA NPR affiliate KPCC and ProPublica (with the LA Times) recently published stories describing behind-the-scenes dealings that among other things involve Sony head Michael Lynton and former LAUSD school board candidate Alex Johnson.

The question is whether the two outlets have discovered newsworthy back-room campaign dealings related to education that need to be brought to light or have gotten caught up in a series of assumptions and possible connections that suggest way more than their reporters can back up with actual facts.

Clearly, there was an effort by Sony and Ridley-Thomas’s PAC to downplay something. Just what’s being hidden, or what the real motivation was, remains unclear to me.

As you may recall, Johnson ran for and lost for a seat on the LAUSD school board last summer. For more background, see the LA Daily News (Teachers union-backed candidate George McKenna elected to Los Angeles Unified school board), LA Times (Outspent by rival, McKenna drew on connections in school board victory), or LA School Report (McKenna victory gives appearance of a pro-teacher union board).

The emails involved come from the Wikileaks Sony hack and are mostly focused on Sony’s business dealings in film and other areas.  But Sony has given money to a PAC that among other things supported a school board candidate who was also on staff. And Sony head Lynton’s wife, LA School Report publisher Jamie Alter Lynton, is involved in education issues including campaigns for LA’s elected school board. So there’s that.

KPCC’s May 18 version of the story, (How PACs are impacting school board elections), authored by Annie Gilbertson, links the Sony donation to the Johnson campaign and makes the case that voters not knowing where candidate funding is coming from makes it harder for them to evaluate the candidate’s positions and campaign:

Last year, Sony executives discussed waiting until after the election to donate $25,000 to the African American Voter Registration and Education Project, a PAC supporting school board candidate Alex Johnson… Contribution records show Sony made a $25,000 donation on Sept. 10, 2014, one month after the runoff election.

Johnson worked as an aide for Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose PAC, the African American Voter Registration, Education, and Participation Project (AAVREPP), was supporting his candidacy.

According to ProPublica’s May 20th story (Hacked Sony Emails Reveal Behind-the-Scenes Political Dealings), the emails reveal “how corporations can try to influence local politics and advance their executives’ pet projects.”

The ProPublica/LAT story describes how candidate Johnson and one of Lynton’s top aides met at a Culver City restaurant. According to ProPublica’s Robert Faturechi and the LA Times’ Jack Dolan, Sony began supporting Johnson after the meeting, but didn’t contribute directly to the campaign and didn’t send the $25,000 until after the election. And that’s a problem:

By promising the donation to the PAC before the election, but cutting the check after, Sony potentially enabled the PAC to spend more than it otherwise would have on behalf of Johnson, without voters knowing about the corporate support when they went to the polls…. Campaign finance experts said that promising to make a donation but only publicly disclosing it after an election could be illegal if there was an enforceable agreement between the two sides.

What’s striking about both versions of the story is that they suggest (a) that the donation to AAVREPP was linked to the Johnson campaign and scheduled around the election day but don’t seem to know for sure, (b) that there was some grave political danger from voters finding out about Johnson’s support from Sony during the campaign, and (c) that $25,000 is a significant amount for a school board race, when that wouldn’t seem to be the case.

To consider:

*The Sony contribution was to AAVREPP, not to one of the independent expenditure committees that have sprouted up specifically to help candidates or to the campaign itself. This issue is addressed in the KPCC story, which notes that Sony says it didn’t give any funding to support Johnson directly. The ProPublica/LAT story makes clear that Sony scheduled an event for Johnson but didn’t contribute to the candidate.

*In the KPCC story, Gilbertson lists the names of several well-known donors to the PAC associated with the California Charter Schools Association, which has emerged as a major funding source for pro-reform campaigns. But neither Lynton nor Sony are named contributors.

*The AAVREPP PAC to which Sony gave funding isn’t specifically set up to support school board candidates (and isn’t a major player compared to CCSA Advocates or Great Public Schools LA, another reform PAC whose operation used to be organized by Antonio Villaraigosa).

*There’s the possibility that the Sony contribution to AAVREPP was for the following November election rather than for the summer election involving Johnson, or that it was mostly about the museum not the election.

In addition, it’s unclear from the KPCC and ProPublica stories just how directly (if at all) Jamie Lynton was involved in the Sony/AAVREPP interaction. She’s married to the head of Sony and deeply engaged in education issues. She’s contributed to campaigns for school board in the past. She’s mentioned by a Sony employee in an email. But there’s nothing in the two stories that links her directly to Johnson or AAVREPP. If she’s not directly involved, then why’s she in the pieces?

The ProPublica/LAT version of the story is much more focused on museum expansion vote in which Ridley-Thomas played a key role. The fact that Ridley-Thomas is involved with both the museum vote and supporting the Johnson campaign is an obstacle — not a motivation — for the Sony contribution to AAVREPP, notes the ProPublica/LAT story: “Lynton was reluctant to back a school board candidate because his wife was head of a news website that reports on the Los Angeles schools, and he feared a contribution might create an appearance of a conflict of interest.”

According to Johnson, one thing is clear: none of this has anything to do with him. “The story involves a contribution to an independent expenditure committee to which my school board campaign had no coordination or involvement.” He left AAVREPP after the failed campaign, was appointed a member of the LA County School Board, and has now taken a job as head of the Children’s Defense Fund’s California chapter.

So we know that some money changed hands, that there was concern about it being revealed prematurely, and that the museum expansion vote passed and that candidate Johnson was rejected. But we don’t really know whether the money was targeted to support the Johnson campaign or to grease the Ridley-Thomas vote for the museum, or whether the delayed contribution was motivated by a desire to avoid raising concerns about the museum vote or the Johnson campaign. Perhaps it was a bit of both. In either case, it doesn’t seem to have been entirely nailed down, and may create the impression for readers of graver misdeeds than we know for sure have been enacted.

Disclosure: I helped launch and edited LA School Report during its first year of operation.

Correction: It’s Ridley-Thomas, not Ridley-Scott. And Lynton, not Lyton. Apologies.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.