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Key takeaways from investigation testimony by ex-CEO Aaron Zahn, JEA leadership

Former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn was fired for cause Jan. 31

Thousands of pages of documents concerning the JEA scandal were released Monday.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – City attorneys on Monday released a cache of documents relating to the city’s investigation into former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn and they provide a detailed look at exactly what led up to his termination last week.

While looking into whether or not Zahn should be terminated with or without cause, attorneys explored thousands of documents and emails and interviewed 30 witnesses, including Zahn and other members of the JEA leadership team. All of those documents and transcripts of the interviews were released after a public records request.

News4Jax has started looking over the documents and just a few of the interesting things we have found so far include executives testifying about Zahn’s heated clash with a former JEA lawyer, the controversial bonus plan known as the “PUP” and Zahn answering questions about his relationship with Mayor Lenny Curry.

Questions surrounding JEA’s Long Term Performance Unit Plan

As expected, many of the questions from city lawyers during the investigation revolved around the now-canceled Long Term Performance Unit Plan, also known as the “PUP” — a controversial plan that could have netted Zahn and others payouts totaling hundreds of millions of dollars if a sale had gone through.

According to investigators, Zahn, who was named permanent CEO in November 2018, was interested in revamping JEA’s compensation plan and wanted to include a long-term incentive plan, a practice more common in the private sector, from the time JEA first started looking into selling the city-owned utility.

City lawyers said during a JEA board meeting last week that Zahn doctored a PowerPoint slide involving the PUP to help push it through, but Zahn told investigators he did not edit the presentation in any way.

JEA Vice President Kerri Stewart also testified that she first heard about the idea of the PUP in Jan. of 2019, months before the JEA board voted in July to allow JEA executives to pursue possible privatization.

Councilman Rory Diamond has said that the city council-led investigation will also zero in on the PUP, so more information is expected to emerge in the coming months.

Zahn blew up at JEA lawyer in front of other executives

Stewart, who has served as VP and Chief Customer Officer since 2017, testified under oath for nearly two hours on Dec. 26, just days after the JEA Board of Directors voted to shelve the potential sale of JEA.

During her testimony, Stewart was asked if she ever witnessed Zahn verbally abuse a member of JEA. She said yes and gave an example.

“Our former chief legal officer, Jody Brooks, and [Zahn] were in a very heated discussion. I don’t remember what it was about, but we were all in a meeting, and -- And Jody pushed back. And Aaron said something along the lines of, why the F can’t you just -- I can’t remember if it was relax or -- I can’t remember exactly what it was. It was very heated in front of the entire team,” Stewart said.

Investigators then asked if the clash was over public records, and Stewart said she couldn’t remember.

Stewart said verbal abuse wasn’t a normal occurrence but added there was a lot of friction between Zahn and other members of the leadership team.

Stewart said it was because Zahn saw JEA as a “bureaucratic government entity and we saw ourselves as a very well-run company."

JEA releasing sworn documents

Zahn gave money for a flight to political consultant with Curry connection

During a six-hour interview, Zahn was asked by investigators if he took a private plane provided by Conventus, LLC to Atlanta on Oct. 4, 2019, to watch an Atlanta Braves game.

Zahn said yes, and added that he immediately paid Tim Baker $500 for the flight and $250 for the ticket.

Baker, a political consultant who worked on Mayor Lenny Curry’s campaigns and a registered manager of Conventus, LLC, was recently attached to the JEA saga.

JEA has said that Zahn considered hiring Baker to help with a potential sale, but it didn’t end up happening.

Baker told the Florida Times-Union he attended several JEA meetings to discuss “the political issues they were facing,” which included providing information about referendums and campaigns, but he wasn’t paid for his appearances.

Baker is also connected to Curry’s Chief Administrative Officer, Brian Hughes.

Zahn has known Curry for years, and they went to the same church

Zahn said he first met Mayor Curry sometime around 2013 while he was working as the head of a waste-water services company.

Eventually, Zahn said, he was on Curry’s "transition team for his first term around infrastructure and economic development and played a pretty substantial role in talking about how the infrastructure of Jacksonville could be substantially improved and that would help drive economic development.”

“I think that gained notice, and at times I’d get calls around policy matter relative to, you know, water and other things, but not anything of subsequence,” Zahn said.

Zahn also said when his wife found a new church, it happened to be the same church attended by the Curry family.

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 Zahn.

Zahn has said that Curry did not influence him as JEA explored a possible sale.

JEA board chair told Zahn not to hold meeting in Atlanta

Last fall members of JEA and the negotiating team hosted a meeting with each of the bidders for the public utility.

Those meetings weren’t in Jacksonville, but Atlanta. Here’s how Zahn described attending.

Question: So when you traveled to Atlanta, did you have the board chair’s approval?

Zahn: No. (JEA Board Chair April Green) actually explicitly wanted me not to go.

Q: Do you know why?

Zahn: She was in a hysteric moment worried about public perception.

Q: And did she tell you that you shouldn't go and it wasn't approved?

Zahn: She demanded that I not go. And I said, I’m being instructed by the negotiating team to go.

Zahn was concerned about leaks to the media

Former JEA Chief Financial Officer Ryan Wannemacher, who was fired from JEA in December, told investigators Zahn was worried about media leaks before JEA board voted on pursuing privatization in July.

“Aaron was concerned about leaks," Wannemacher said. "He was concerned that the longer we took, the more likely it was that, you know, somehow, the information would get out about the work we were doing and that, you know, you’d have public records requests and all of that. So, he wanted to act effectively and, you know pull everything together.”

News4Jax will continue to look over the documents in the coming days.

Check back on News4Jax.com for the latest updates.

About the Authors:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.

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