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Did JEA & PR firm ghostwrite Times-Union op-eds?

‘They would offer us names that they believe supported the position they were taking’

VIDEO: JEA and a high-profile public relations firm collaborated on a series of opinions published in the Florida Times-Union that were passed off as the writing of other individuals, including a current JEA board member, the News4Jax I-TEAM learned.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – JEA and a high-powered public relations firm collaborated on a series of opinions published in the Florida Times-Union that were passed off as the writing of other individuals, including a current JEA board member, the News4Jax I-TEAM learned Friday.

Emails and text messages obtained through public records requests show the utility’s communications staff and Dalton Agency employees worked hand in hand on guest columns purportedly authored by Miller Electric CEO Henry Brown, who is seated on JEA’s board of directors, and HCI Group CEO Rick Caplin.

The records appear to show behind-the-scenes maneuvering by JEA to present its stance as opinions from individual voices in the community — not viewpoints that were solicited as part of a concerted response to media coverage that was critical of efforts to find suitors interested in buying the city-owned utility.

“I was able to have Henry Brown author the letter with a couple of edits. I called (Times-Union Editorial Page Editor Mike Clark) and he accepted it. Yeah!!” Dalton Agency President Michael Munz wrote in a Nov. 7 text message sent to JEA spokesperson Gina Kyle, who expressed gratitude in response.

That conversation happened three days before the Times-Union published a column under Brown’s name seeking “community engagement” in efforts to explore privatization.

“During anxious times, when the unknown overwhelms the known, it is sometimes tempting to follow the alarm call of the angriest voices,” the column stated in part. “It’s important that we become more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly without indignation and more open to the facts.”

(Incidentally, it was Brown who first proposed a motion to remove JEA’s then-CEO Aaron Zahn and floated the possibility of scrapping sales talks when the utility’s board of directors met Dec. 17 after news of a controversial employee bonus plan came to light.)

Invoices obtained by the I-TEAM show JEA has been paying the Dalton Agency $25,000 a month as a retainer. News4Jax has reached out to JEA for comment on this story, which will be updated with the utility’s response.

Reached Friday, Munz said Dalton has been working for the utility since March, but the firm started work on messaging for JEA’s efforts to market itself once the invitation to negotiate (ITN) began. He said it is routine for public relations firms to help with public policy messaging as needed.

“They would offer us names that they believe supported the position they were taking," Munz said. "Our job was to reach out to the individual business or community leader. First we would inquire if they would do a letter and then collaborate to write or produce the letter.”

Clark, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, said it’s not unusual for public relations firms or companies to submit guest columns on behalf of other individuals. He said in the case of JEA-specific columns, he usually dealt with Kyle, the utility spokesperson.

“It’s common practice for firms to submit op-eds for people,” Clark said, adding that the newspaper would not have rejected the submissions “unless there was some problem with the content.”

City Councilman Rory Diamond, who’s leading a special council committee tasked with investigating efforts to sell JEA, said the correspondence uncovered Friday, along with other findings, makes it “absolutely” clear that JEA was trying everything in its power to pitch a potential sale of the utility to the public.

“Look, they were going to do anything they possibly could to get people behind the sale of JEA,” Diamond told News4Jax. “This is just one piece of that puzzle. Hopefully when our investigative committee is done, we’ll have all the pieces put together.”

Munz said Brown’s op-ed began with a post the Miller Electric CEO had made on the professional social network LinkedIn. He said the firm contacted Brown and then gave him a draft version of the column.

In a phone interview, Brown said he was approached in response to his LinkedIn posts. He was provided a draft based on his own writing, which he edited to make sure it reflected his “style and intent" before signing off on the piece. He did not recall specific details about how many edits were involved.

“I don’t remember making wholesale changes to it,” Brown told News4Jax. " ... I may have softened some of the positions and also, knowing my role on the board, was careful to make sure that I was doing things that were in line with my role on the board as well."

Brown noted that he joined JEA’s board in September after it had already approved the ITN and the bonus plan, both of which were later shelved in response to public outcry. He said he did not know about the performance unit plan (or PUP) until it was withdrawn, much less when the column was published.

“I think the city of Jacksonville, both the elected officials and population, have made it clear that JEA is priceless,” Brown said. “And now, as a city and as a board of JEA, it’s our job to move forward and make sure the utility is providing as much value as possible to the city of Jacksonville. ... I think we need to put any discussion of a sale or recapitalization behind us.”

The same back-and-forth involved with Brown’s column also happened before the Times-Union published a Dec. 8 column under Caplin’s name. Emails and text messages show Dalton and JEA’s staff made a series of edits, screening the piece for messaging and talking points, before seeking Caplin’s approval.

On Nov. 26, Dalton employee Maddie Milne sent Kyle and JEA’s public relations staff an email asking them to review a draft version of an op-ed intended to run in the newspaper:

“Please review the attached Op-Ed. It has been reformatted and cut down SLIGHTLY to fit the 700 word minimum needed to make it to the FTU. If you are OK with it, please send to Ricky to approve. Also, are you OK calling these scenarios? David/Jay had talked about calling these ‘5 ways’ JEA could change on the website. Thanks, Maddie.”

In response, Kyle said: “At first blush, we may now have lost the thoughts that he insisted having included. We can look at it again in the morning. I’m happy to send it to him once we are done, but you may have better luck. He only responded to Banks.”

To which Milne replied: “Okay! The three of us will need to work on it. I’m happy to send if you have his information? Michael – let me know if you would like to send instead? I’m happy to send in the am if not! I will need his information though.”

The next day, Kyle wrote JEA Vice President and Chief Customer Officer Kerri Stewart along with two Dalton employees to let them know the newspaper would run the Caplin column.

“The attached was submitted to Mike Clark today for consideration as an Op-Ed in the Sunday TU. Maddie worked some magic and was able to get quick approval from Ricky Caplin."

When the column ran Dec. 8, it presented all five of the so-called “scenarios” JEA’s leadership was exploring for its future. Among other things, the piece encouraged readers to keep an open mind and take an opportunity to educate themselves on the options on the table.

“What will happen to JEA if absolutely no changes are made?" the column wondered. “There is no debate that the industry is changing quickly through innovation and technological disruption. Doing nothing leads to irrelevance and diminished value. Just take a look at Blockbuster, Toys ‘R Us or Kodak for example.”

On Friday, Caplin acknowledged that the Dalton Agency contacted him to ask if he would write a letter about his feelings that JEA needed to change its business model. He said they were originally his thoughts, but they were edited to “help me convey my message in the way that I wanted it to read.”

“I am disappointed with the stuff I later learned regarding the significant potential management upside in the incentive plan and the land deal with a related party,” Caplin told the I-TEAM. “This poor judgment was alarming and I agree the process needed to halt. I commend all the people involved who have helped shed light on these issues and protecting one of our community’s most valuable assets. But I also believe JEA needs to change for its future and I stand by my thoughts.”

‘Idea for an op ed’

Brown’s and Caplin’s columns weren’t the only collaborations between the utility and public relations firm. Others included a Sept. 29 brainstorm by David Goldberg, JEA’s director of customer and community engagement. His email, proposed as an idea for an op-ed, included a few notable gems:

  • “Maybe you should believe ex-mayors who’s (sic) agenda is to want to continue to live in the past and go against a current metro (sic) who wants to do what he feels is best fortune (sic) city he leads.”
  • “Perhaps certain folks in the media, naysayers of the mayor, or others who want to protect their own, do not ultimately have what’s best for Jacksonville residents and businesses at heart. Perhaps they in fact have their own agendas.”
  • “The facts have been laid out as to why JEA must look to become a nongovernmental agency. It’s pretty clear based on the trends that all within the industry that people are consuming less electricity due to energy efficient appliances, new technology and alternative energy.”

About the Authors:

Lynnsey Gardner is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning investigative reporter and fill-in anchor for The Local Station.

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.