Councilman wants feds to investigate mayor's office influence on grants

Councilman Garrett Dennis sends request to Department of Justice

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – City Councilman Garrett Dennis on Monday asked the U.S. Attorney to investigate allegations that staffers in Mayor Lenny Curry's office pressured city department running children's programs to give preferential treatment to groups seeking grants.

This comes as Joe Peppers, CEO of Kids Hope Alliance, is on paid leave while under investigation by both the city's inspector general and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. What prompted the investigations was not released, but the Florida Times-Union obtained an email Peppers sent last September blasting Mayor Lenny Curry's top aides for pressuring him to select preferred groups for small grants.

Dennis' letter to the DOJ says it is imperative that these allegations be thoroughly investigated and that appropriate action taken if crimes have occurred.

"This occurred while Mayor Lenny Curry was running for re-election," Dennis wrote. "It is believed that these are the organizations which were hand-picked by the mayor's office to receive grant money to quiet criticism of Mayor Curry."

The Duval County Democratic Party has requested a similar investigation on the state level. Dennis said his request is separate from that.

Text messages obtained by News4Jax between Joe Peppers and Brian Hughes, who was Curry's chief of staff at the time, used colorful language describing Dennis. One exchange on Oct. 16, 2018, seems to show the mayor's office wanted a grant for one church group.

Hughes: "Bethel gonna nee micro (grant)"
Peppers: "Did they apply?"
Hughes: "They should"

Another exchange seems to show Peppers suggesting to Hughes that they move grant funds in response to a critical news report. 

Peppers: "We can say that we have been working on it for a month."

DOCUMENTS: Dennis' letter to U.S. Attorney
Text messages between Hughes and Joe Peppers |
Brian Hughes' memo

"The exchange demonstrates limitations caused by the brevity of text as a format," Hughs wrote about the text exchange as he released it. "I was encouraging KHA to make Bethel aware that they could apply for a micro-grant because they had an existing program for teenage boys that could be expanded if they were selected by the RFP (request for proposals) process."

The mayor's office released this statement Monday about Dennis' request for a federal investigation:

As usual, this Councilmember is putting his quest for headlines before the facts. All KHA grant recipients, including those who received money from the Stop the Violence grants, were in 100 percent compliance with the laws and regulations that guide the procurement and contracting process. Applications, scoring and awards were all done in a public and transparent process. The records related to every dollar are available for anyone to review and, again, demonstrate complete adherence to the law. Any suggestion otherwise is false and is clearly so because of the public records." - Nikki Kimbleton, Director of Public Affairs

Several other council members said they can't say much until more facts come out.

"Whatever I read in the paper and so forth has caused me some pause, and that’s about the only comment I want to make right now," Councilman Matt Carlucci said.

"I think eventually it will play itself out," Councilman Sam Newby said. "I don’t have any concerns and I have faith in the mayor and administration and I have faith in the KHA that everything is going to play out and be fine."

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