JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Newly released city records suggest a former JEA board chair began negotiations for his law firm to get paid for help with a potential sale of the city-owned utility while he was seated on its board.
Despite those discussions, Alan Howard never mentioned his personal interest in the matter nor did he recuse himself when the board voted at a meeting nearly two weeks later to explore the option of taking the utility private. Instead, he spoke about the need to consider “strategic” alternatives for JEA’s future.
Howard resigned from JEA’s board of directors after the July 23 meeting. As the Florida Times-Union reported, his law firm was hired a month later to provide legal counsel for JEA and was paid $75,000.
Details of Howard’s sales pitch emerged Monday as the Office of General Counsel released more records related to its investigation into former CEO Aaron Zahn, who was fired last week. The records — which include Zahn’s testimony and an email Howard sent to a law firm hired by JEA — appear at odds with Howard’s recollection of his contact with the utility.
In a July 11 email to a partner at the third-party law firm, Howard laid out his firm’s hourly rates along with a potential discount in exchange for a ”success fee“ if the utility were sold, and even name-dropped his law partner, Paul Renner, who was serving as House Speaker for the Florida House of Representatives.
“It was good to meet you yesterday in Jacksonville; I look forward to working with you," Howard wrote. "Per Aaron’s request, attached are tear sheets on the attorneys in our firm that I would propose to use on this engagement. I anticipate that I will be the primary resource, but I have included one associate from my team and my law partner who does government relations work. My partner, Paul Renner, is the Speaker of the House — Designate for the Florida House of Representatives, is extremely well-connected in state and local politics, and would be support on government relations. We would involve additional firm resources if required.”
Multiple attempts to reach Howard by phone Tuesday were unsuccessful. Messages left with Renner’s office in Tallahassee and on his personal cell phone were not immediately returned.
Howard told News4Jax last week that he did not see a conflict of interest in voting for a plan to pursue a sale of JEA because his firm was not “engaged,” meaning that he was not promised work, by the utility at the time.
He acknowledged that Zahn suggested prior to the July 23 board meeting that “JEA would like me to be ‘on the team.'" He said he provided his firm’s fees after hearing vendors might be hired through the third-party firm but he later learned the General Counsel had not approved those dealings, so no one was hired on that basis.
Speaking under oath with city attorneys Jan. 22, Zahn said he did not recall having discussions about hiring Howard’s firm — he said that was handled by Chief Administrative Officer Herschel Vinyard and then-Chief Legal Officer Lynne Rhode. He remembered Howard expressed interest in working with JEA and that he recommended Howard clear it with General Counsel Jason Gabriel.
“I do know that Alan said that he would very much like to be on the team in terms of helping JEA, and that he had conferred with Jason and that there was not a conflict,” said Zahn, who did not directly answer a question about whether he disclosed his discussions with Howard to the board.
“I’m not privy to the conversation Alan and Jason had," he said. “And I believe Alan — well, I would imagine Alan, being the person that he is, he probably conferred with a lot of people on this if there is a conflict."
Zahn’s attorney declined comment for this story and referred to his client’s testimony.
Gabriel told News4Jax he and Howard did not discuss his firm working on the privatization effort either before or after the July 23 meeting. He said Zahn’s recollection of that conversation likely was based on what Howard might have told Zahn. He did not rule out the possibility that Howard spoke with others about the issue.
“The bottom line is, none of those conversations happened with me,” Gabriel said.
City Councilman Rory Diamond, a former federal prosecutor who is leading a council committee charged with investigating the sale of JEA, didn’t mince words when asked what he thought of Howard’s behavior.
“Look, if you’re soliciting bids, if you’re soliciting work for something that you’re about to vote on in the public trust, that’s just wrong,” Diamond told News4Jax.