More than one month after BART spokesman Linton Johnson went on personal leave following internal and external criticism of his actions, he isn’t yet back on the job and agency officials will not discuss his possible return.
Members of the Web activist collective Anonymous targeted Johnson for apparently advocating the disruption of BART cellphone service to quell a planned protest of the agency’s July 3 shooting of 45-year-old Charles Hill.
After BART did not bow to activists’ demand that Johnson be fired, Web hackers posted nude photographs purporting to depict the longtime spokesman.
Along with recommending the cellphone shutdown — which ultimately was approved by former interim General Manager Sherwood Wakeman — Johnson also drew heat for attempting to bus supporters of BART to an agency news conference.
Acting agency spokesman Jim Allison, who has taken over chief communication duties in the last month, said he could not discuss Johnson’s absence since he is on personal leave. Although Allison said Johnson is still employed by the agency, he declined to release information about when he might return.
A pager message recorded by Johnson on Aug. 22 said he hoped to return to work “in a few days.”
BART Director Lynette Sweet said Johnson initially left the agency to visit his ailing grandmother. She said she talked to him on Sept. 19, and expected him to return that day. But Johnson never returned to BART.
Sweet speculated that the agency may have asked Johnson to extend his leave for fear of reinvigorating the protests against it, which have ebbed in recent weeks.
“I do think there is something fishy going on here,” Sweet said.
Any decision to fire Johnson would rest with Jennifer Barton, the agency’s director of external affairs, and new General Manager Grace Crunican.
Despite the negative attention directed at him, public relations executive Sam Singer said he believes Johnson could still return as the face of the agency.
“He made some mistakes, but there has been no fatal flaw,” said Singer, president of Singer Associates. “And I think there are plenty of people in the Bay Area sympathetic to what he’s been through.”
BART Director Tom Radulovich said the agency made many mistakes following the Hill shooting, but the blame did not rest squarely on Johnson.
Radulovich, Sweet and fellow Director Joel Keller said it would be important to discuss what role Johnson would have when — or if — he eventually returns to BART.
“Linton has done a wonderful job as a BART spokesperson, but these last few months have been pretty tumultuous, and he’s been at the center of it,” Sweet said. “I do think he could come back, but it would be a slow, credibility-building process.”
Johnson declined to speak on the record about his absence.