At St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens, felons can teach criminal law. They just can't study it.
On July 13, Miami New Times reported that St. Thomas had hired its criminal law professor, Steve Clark, a former Arkansas attorney general, despite a 1990 felony theft conviction for using his state-issued credit card to pay for personal purchases including $80 cognacs.
Now the newspaper has learned that Jamila Johnson, an eye-catching 29-year-old African-American with long hair and a wide smile, received unequal treatment from former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who is now the dean of the St. Thomas law program.
The daughter of a janitor and a secretary, Johnson graduated from Stanford University with the aid of scholarships and grants. In August 2002, she applied to St. Thomas. "They accepted me right away," she says.
But after nearly two years of classes, she was having trouble making ends meet. Rent was due, and debt was piling up. Desperate, she says she fell into the wrong crowd. "I met three guys who were big into identity theft," she says. "They were making $50,000 a month."
Lured by easy money, Johnson traveled with the men to Alabama on March 3, 2004. There she walked into a bank with someone else's credit card and withdrew $8000 in cash. At a second bank, she pulled the same scam. That time Johnson was arrested before she could make it across the parking lot.
While Johnson awaited trial from a jail cell, her mother called St. Thomas: Jamila would have to withdraw because of a "personal emergency," she told them. Law school administrators agreed to give her a leave of absence. In December 2004 in Montgomery, Alabama, she pleaded guilty to two felony counts of credit card fraud and was released after having served ten months in prison. She returned to Florida on parole in August 2005, took classes for one semester at St. Thomas, and then left for a semester. Three months ago, she returned to finish her third year at the Catholic law school.
But Johnson, who says she received about $20,000 in grants and aid from St. Thomas during her academic career there, knew she had unsettled business: She had to disclose her felony conviction to the school. "I thought I'd be okay, because I'd heard rumors that there was a professor on staff with a felony," Johnson says, referring to Clark, a former Arkansas attorney general who was pardoned in 2004. Indeed her offense misuse of someone else's credit card was similar to Clark's crime.
On May 17, Johnson met with student affairs director John Hernandez. She confessed.
"You'll be gone in two days," Johnson remembers Hernandez telling her. (Hernandez did not return calls for comment.)
She received a written expulsion order one month later. It was signed by associate dean George Sheldon, who had served as Butterworth's deputy attorney general in Tallahassee.
Last month Johnson sent Butterworth an e-mail linking to the New Times story about Clark's felony conviction. "Just like he is, I'm trying to move on with my life," she wrote to Butterworth.
The Florida AG did not respond to the e-mail. But in regard to Clark, he told Miami New Times: "Steve had a problem in his life a number of years ago, and he dealt with it. He's dealing with it in a wonderful way, by giving back to the community. He's a great inspiration. He's open about the problem he's overcome." (See "Classroom Felon," July 13.)
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Marivi Prado, a spokesman for St. Thomas, says Johnson was expelled for not disclosing her felony conviction. But that's not true. According to paperwork Johnson provided, St. Thomas expelled the student because of her felony conviction. When pressed about the issue, Prado refused to discuss specifics. "We're bound by privacy laws," she said.
Defending Clark, Prado explained, "In this particular case, there is someone who paid restitution and was pardoned."
Johnson paid restitution too. And, unlike Clark, she spent time behind bars. She merely lacks a pardon and political connections to Butterworth.
"Steve Clark has a felony, and I have a felony," she says. "Steve Clark is part of their little club, and I'm not."