Business leader who prompted JEA sale discussion has ties to mayor

I-TEAM digs into financial, political motivations behind utility sale talk

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As the mayor and some City Council members trade blows over the potential sale of JEA to a private company, the I-TEAM is digging into whether the sale could be tied to Mayor Lenny Curry politically.

The lightning speed of the proposed sale of the city-owned utility has raised eyebrows among City Council members, including finance chair Garrett Dennis, who suggested the mayor is pushing the sale for his own reasons.

“I'm probably one of the only people that will say that, but it is definitely the mayor's agenda,” Dennis said. “And as the process unveils itself, it will be apparent that the mayor is behind the sale of JEA.”

Some I-TEAM sources have suggested a buyer is already lined up, prompting the fast-tracked discussions, but Curry denies that.

“The idea or suggestion that there is a buyer, that there has been some secret deal negotiated, that is a disgraceful and irresponsible allegation,” Curry said.

Tom Petway, a longtime civic leader, businessman and former JEA board member appointed by Curry, sparked renewed discussion of the possible "private sector marketplace" sale when he publicly suggested last November that the pros and cons of the move should be studied. He made the comment on Nov. 29, the day he announced he would step down from the JEA Board.

The next day -- Nov. 30 -- TECO Energy, a private utility based in Tampa, made a $10,000 contribution to Curry's political action committee called "Build Something That Lasts."

The I-TEAM has not found any connection between Petway and any energy company.

But News4Jax did find that overall, Tom Petway and his family, including his son, Ty Petway, both of the men's wives and at least four businesses connected to the Petway men, are among the top five donors to Curry when all their donations are combined.

In addition to contributions to other PACS and candidates across the state, we found the Petways have contributed $446,500 in support of Curry, including $14,000 in campaign contributions, another $347,500 to Curry's "Together for a Greater Jacksonville" political committee, and an additional $85,000 to "Build Something That Lasts."

Two other JEA board members -- Delores Kesler and Alan Howard -- also contributed to Curry's campaign. Kesler is now a former board member.

Petway, who is well-known in Jacksonville business and political circles, is an insurance executive and a former founding partner with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was also the chair of Curry's transition team when the mayor took office.

Around the time Petway stepped down from the board and suggested the JEA sale study, Curry said he was open to the sale discussion, and JEA ordered the study, which will be published Wednesday.

A draft version of the study didn't say explicitly how taxpayers and JEA customers would benefit from the sale. It did say a sale would "produce substantial up-front net proceeds to the city. The sale of JEA would be an enormously complex undertaking," but if a sale were to happen, now is the time.

Curry said that despite appearances, the city is not rushing toward a deal.

“The only thing that's happened is the JEA has received a report on whether there's pluses or minuses or both into looking at the asset, and what's the range of the value of the asset -- that's all that's happened -- as directed by the JEA,” Curry said. “So moving too fast? Nothing else has happened. What you're hearing and what you're suggesting are people making things up."

Petway had no comment Tuesday, and the Mayor's Office has not responded to a request for comment on whether the possible sale of JEA could be politically motivated. When asked about the campaign contributions, staffers referred the I-TEAM to Curry’s PAC, and the PAC leaders have not responded to our request for comment.

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