Nichelle Johnson, Mount Vernon mayor's chief of staff, cleared in ethics probe

Mount Vernon City Hall is shown in this

Mount Vernon City Hall is shown in this file photo. (Feb. 6, 2013) (Credit: Rory Glaeseman)

The Mount Vernon Ethics Board has cleared the city's attorney of any wrongdoing for allegedly using a BMW belonging to Sam Zherka, the controversial owner the Westchester Guardian weekly newspaper and part owner of a Manhattan strip club.

Nichelle Johnson, the city's corporation counsel and Mayor Ernie Davis' chief of staff, was the subject of a monthlong probe by the board, which found no evidence of ethical violations, according to City Council President Yuhanna Edwards.

"I can't go into details about the investigation but can confirm that she has been cleared," Edwards said Wednesday.


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Davis downplayed the controversy and said he was glad to put the issue behind him.

"We can continue to conduct the business of running the city without distractions like making an issue out of a friend borrowing a friend's vehicle," he said in a statement.

Johnson said her relationship with Zherka is personal and not the business of the public.

"I was confident the Board of Ethics would see there was no wrongdoing because their decision affects not only me, but all other employees of the city who may find themselves having to defend personal relationships that have no bearing on doing their jobs," Johnson said in a statement. "Anyone who knows me knows that I work hard for my city. Always have, always will."

The five-member Ethics Board is appointed by City Council members and must report the results of investigations to the council before findings are made public. The board doesn't have subpoena powers but can levy fines and make recommendations for termination and other sanctions for violations. Ultimately, the council must approve any actions.

The board's chairwoman, Ronnie Cox, recused herself from the investigation because she took a cruise with Johnson several years ago. Previously, Cox said she stepped down to avoid "any perceived conflict of interest" in the board's probe.

Cox's recusal, however, fueled calls by some City Council members for an outside investigation.

Ethical questions also have been raised as to why Davis, 74, has been sending tax bills for a condo he owns in Florida to City Councilwoman Roberta Apuzzo's Mount Vernon residence. Rental income from that condo and several properties Davis owns in New York, Virginia and North Carolina are part of a federal investigation into his personal finances.

Board members reportedly are looking into those claims, but it's not clear whether they have launched an official probe.

The city's ethics board re-emerged from oblivion two years ago, with City Council members and others heralding its return as a way to hold public officials accountable for ethical violations or conflicts of interest.

Since then, however, the board -- which only recently gained a full contingent of five members -- has done little besides update ethics policies and cajole officials into filing their annual financial disclosures on time.

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