JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A special City Council committee being formed to investigate JEA will have subpoena powers, Jacksonville City Council President Scott Wilson announced Monday.
Wilson named Councilman Rory Diamond, a former federal prosecutor, as the chairman.
“There are still many questions,” Wilson said during a news conference at City Hall. “That is why I am forming a special council committee to investigate every aspect, turn over every rock, look behind every curtain and bring all that we do not know, and what we deserve to know, into daylight for everyone to see.”
Diamond’s meeting with JEA last month was credited as one of the reasons JEA’s board dismissed CEO Aaron Zahn just before Christmas. Diamond told News4Jax he wants City Council to investigate the city-owned utility -- even while a federal investigation is ongoing -- because a City Council investigation will all be out in the open. He said the council committee’s goal will be to answer the question of who knew what was going on and when as it relates to the proposed sale of JEA and a controversial bonus plan that has now been canceled.
State Attorney Melissa Nelson was investigating JEA, but announced last week she was turning the investigation over to the U.S. Justice Department.
“During the secret process to sell JEA, employees have been disrespected and treated unfairly. They too deserve to know the truth,” Wilson said. “We must do whatever is necessary to make sure something like this never happens again.”
Any senior JEA executive found to have been involved in wrongdoing will be terminated for cause, Wilson said.
Diamond will lead the committee along with councilmembers Brenda Priestley Jackson and Randy DeFoor, who are also attorneys.
“Each of us is a member of the Florida Bar and combined have 60 years of legal expertise,” Priestley Jackson later tweeted. “We will zealously work to restore our neighbors’ trust and protect one of our greatest public assets.”
Council members said they have been wanting to dig into JEA for months but were told they weren’t allowed to get involved.
“We were often told because they’re an independent authority, we could not in any way infringe upon the government as an oversight of that board and that utility," Priestley Jackson told News4Jax.
Wilson said the formation of the special committee is important, in part, because the looming FBI investigation has no timetable and it’s unclear exactly which aspects of the ITN process are being investigated. The City Council-led investigation will also ensure a public report, he said.
The committee can call the investigation and issue a report, but any criminal charges would have to come from federal investigators. City Council members can subpoena people like Zahn, JEA staff and even Mayor Lenny Curry to get answers.
“I think we’re going to uncover a significant amount of additional information,” DeFoor told News4Jax.
Wilson said the committee, which plans to interview witnesses under oath, will start formal meetings in the next week or so and he hopes to have a full report to City Council in three to four months.
“The public has a right to know exactly what happened, why it happened, how it happened and who was involved,” Wilson said.
Councilman Garrett Dennis said: “I wish we could have come to this conclusion a long time ago but everything happens how and when it’s supposed to and, because it has taken a little longer, more layers of the onion have been peeled back."
Following the announcement, a JEA spokesperson issued a statement:
Wilson said the committee won’t begin its work until city lawyers finish their investigation of Zahn to determine if he should be fired with cause from JEA. He could get nothing as severance, or take home hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on what lawyers find.
Wilson said based on what he knew as of Monday, Zahn should be fired with cause.
Zahn’s lawyer responded to Wilson’s statements Monday in an email to News4Jax:
It has been 34 days since the December 17 JEA Board meeting in which the Board was informed in a televised public meeting that no ‘Cause’ existed to terminate Mr. Zahn’s employment. Further, no basis was found for a ‘for Cause’ termination by the Board’s deadline of December 30, 2019, and no ‘Cause’ was found before the January 7, 2020 special Board meeting was canceled, but the investigation to drum up some claim ‘for Cause’ continues with no end in sight. At this time, Mr. Zahn, his wife, and his children are being traumatized by the baseless and prolonged separation process with undue public humiliation and defamation.John D. Mullen, attorney
In the background of the news conference was Tim Baker, the mayor’s political strategist. Zahn had hoped to hire Baker to help promote JEA during the sale. That did not happen, but some are questioning Baker’s involvement and that of the mayor’s staff. He could be called in as a witness in the City Council investigation.
“I think City Council should do what they think they should do,” Baker told News4Jax after the press conference. “I am a private citizen of Duval County and I am not worried about myself whatsoever.”
Wilson said anyone who was involved in maliciously trying to sell JEA or who committed any criminal act should be held accountable regardless of who they are.