JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is now looking at the cellphone of the man who has led the city’s primary agency to help children for the past 16 months.
Joe Peppers, the CEO of Jacksonville’s Kids Hope Alliance, was placed on paid leave Wednesday while the city's inspector general investigates. The nature of that investigation has not been made public.
While the inquiry is creating a buzz around City Hall, no one will talk about it. Neither the mayor nor his staff would comment, saying they can't because of the investigation. Requests for emails were refused due to the ongoing investigation.
News4Jax visited Pepper's home Friday but was told he wasn't available.
An email Peppers sent last September blasting Mayor Lenny Curry's top aides has come out. Peppers claimed top city staffers were pressuring him to select preferred groups for small grants.
But it appears this investigation may not be about the email or grants but about a problem that may have been going on for some time. News4Jax was told all the information will become public when the investigation is completed in about 10 days.
Two other Kids Hope Alliance staff members resigned recently, so there seems to be turmoil with the project, which run by the city. We had an interview set up with the project's chief operating officer but it was abruptly canceled.
Kids Hope Alliance was formed two years ago to oversee "programs that promote child and youth development." It took over for the Children's Commission with a new board and a $32.3 million budget. Peppers was appointed to the original board, then applied to be CEO -- a $175,000 job.
In his budget address last month, Curry praised the work of the Kids Hope Alliance as part of the city's long-term battle against violence. He proposed an 8.6% increase in its budget.
The grants that Peppers said he was pressured over were microgrants -- under $10,000 -- that went to numerous organizations to help with a Stop the Violence campaign. Staff at the Kids Hope Alliance said Friday there does not appear to be a problem in how the microgrants are being used.
On Friday night, News4Jax received copies of text messages between Peppers and Brian Hughes, the city's chief administrative officer. In it, they discuss grants involving Bethel Baptist chuch, which Hughes says "they should" apply for a grant.
Hughes told the Florida Times Union that he never pressured Peppers into giving grants to a specific organization, and explained how the exchange shows he was not giving preferential treatment to the church.
City Councilman Terrance Freeman, who had worked on the Jacksonville Journey, one of the city efforts that preceded the Kids Hope Alliance, and knows Peppers from other jobs.
"For me, the latest things that have come out, it’s concerning," Freeman said. "My heart just goes out to our kids. We look at where the discussion is right now with our city and our kids are in the middle of it. And it’s time for us to have a call to action."
While we likely won't learn anything about the investigation by next week, Jacksonville City Council members will learn more about the work of the group and its grant process as the Kids Hope Alliance appear before the finance committee on Thursday. We will be there to see which staff members show up to answer questions about the group's budget.
On Friday night, Peppers tweeted: