JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Federal investigators will take over the investigation of issues connected to the privatization of JEA, State Attorney Melissa Nelson announced Monday.
Nelson, who had resisted calls last fall for a grand jury investigation but said her office was looking into how the city-owned utility had requested bids and reviewed them in a closed-door process -- even to Jacksonville City Council, said Monday that her office had examined “every item of information it received and discovered."
“After thorough review, the State Attorney’s Office has determined that the appropriate venue to continue this investigation is the federal justice system. We have referred our investigation to our federal partners, who will take the lead moving forward and have the full support of this office," Nelson wrote.
Mayor Lenny Curry’s spokeswoman, Nikki Kimbleton, released a statement saying, “The Curry administration, as always, supports the work of law enforcement. We stand ready to provide whatever assistance that’s requested at any time.”
News4Jax spoke with Jacksonville City Councilman Rory Diamond about Nelson’s decision, which comes after she said her office began its investigation into the utility last year.
“It’s always good if the federal government is looking into something and we have some confidence and we would have no idea what they are doing until after they’re done and maybe we’ll hear nothing,” Diamond said.
News4Jax is attempting to learn which branch of the federal government would take up the investigation. The FBI said it can neither confirm nor deny the existence or status of any investigation.
Diamond said he feels there should be a City Council-led investigation so that the public can see what’s happening every step of the way.
“I think we need to have a thorough City Council-led investigation out in the sunshine. We need to open up every door. We need to look at every email and put it all out there and let the public see. It’s only when you open all this you get rid of all the shadows that you’re going to have any chance to rebuild trust with the people," he said. "We can look at every email. The public can hear every question. They can read every document. They’ll know exactly what’s happening -- it’s all out in the open. Whether it’s a state investigation or a federal investigation, it’s all secret until the end.”
JEA’s board formally halted the bidding process Dec. 24, one day after Curry called for an end to it and one week after the board voted to oust CEO Aaron Zahn. Chief Operating Officer Melissa Dykes was tapped to the lead the utility in his place, although she announced Monday she will not seek the job permanently.
Zahn has been a magnet for criticism as details of the JEA’s Invitation to Negotiate came to light in recent month, including how JEA’s executives could have potentially netted millions from a sale of the utility through an abandoned bonus scheme.
The chair of JEA’s board of directors told News4Jax last week she welcomed the investigation by the State Attorney’s Office if that’s what it takes to get to the bottom of the doomed plan to explore a sale the utility.
“We want to know as much as everyone else what has happened and how we got here today," Board Chair April Green said.
While Zahn remains on administrative leave, his fate is up in the air. JEA’s board was set to meet Tuesday to discuss if he should be fired with or without cause -- the difference between letting him walk away with nearly $500,000 or nothing at all -- but that meeting was postponed.
The city general counsel’s office, which is doing its own investigation, told Green last week that it needed more time for interviews and research before determining if Zahn can be fired for cause.
Green, who called for Zahn to be fired for cause at the board’s Dec. 17 meeting, expressed displeasure Friday along with a desire for answers to the questions that have been nagging JEA.
“I’m a member of this community who has done nothing but try to contribute to the community that raised my children,” she said. “So, it’s pretty frustrating to be in a position where you feel like your community has been done wrongly, and you’re at the head of it. You’re on the board.”