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City Council committee opens JEA probe, submits more than 80 public record requests

Chairman Rory Diamond outlined direction of investigation on Monday

City Council committee opens JEA probe, submits more than 80 public record requests
City Council committee opens JEA probe, submits more than 80 public record requests

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The special Jacksonville City Council committee formed to investigate JEA’s failed effort to sell itself laid out its plans at its first meeting Monday morning.

The plan, which was approved Monday, included sending more than 80 public records requests to JEA, including a request that asks for communications between former CEO Aaron Zahn, Mayor Lenny Curry and former and current members of the mayor’s staff.

Councilman Rory Diamond, who heads the committee, introduced the document and opened it for discussion with other members of the special committee including councilmembers Brenda Priestley Jackson and Randy DeFoor.

Many of the records requests have to do with the “PUP”, the Long-term Incentive Plan known as the Performance Unit Plan presented to, and approved by, the JEA Board on July 23, 2019.

MORE: Key takeaways from investigation testimony by ex-CEO Aaron Zahn, JEA leadership | Lawyers: Ex-JEA CEO doctored PowerPoint slide to pitch controversial bonus plan | City Council auditor raises more concerns over JEA performance plan

The controversial and now-canceled plan could have netted Zahn and others payouts totaling hundreds of millions of dollars if a sale had gone through.

The committee will also look through documents to see if JEA leadership started looking into the potential privatization of the city-owned utility before it was approved by the JEA Board of Directors.

“The JEA board said don’t investigate privatization – and then a couple of years later that’s exactly what they did,” Diamond said during the meeting. “It’s clear that they hired lawyers. They hired consultants to start looking at privatization and they had no authority to do it.”

Among the public record requests:

  • All documents regarding the drafting of the Performance Unit Plan, or any longterm incentive plan for JEA.
  • All documents regarding the forecasting of JEA revenues, expenses, sales or customer demand.
  • All communications regarding the meetings at White Oak Plantation, Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, or Club Continental.
  • All communications to or from Mayor Lenny Curry, (Curry’s Chief Administrative Officer) Brian Hughes, and (Curry’s former Chief Administrative Officer) Sam Mousa and (Curry’s political strategist) Tim Baker.
  • All communications with (JEA Chief Administrative Officer) Herschel Vinyard prior to his employment by JEA in April 2019.
  • All documents or communications with regarding Deno Hicks, Southern Group or Southern Strategy Group, including correspondence, contracts, invoices, calendar appointments, or ESI.
  • All text messages or other electronic communications regarding the ITN or the PUP from Aaron Zahn, Ryan Wannemacher, Melissa Dykes, Herschel Vinyard, and Jon Kendrick.
  • All documents related to the selection of the new JEA headquarters.

The special committee is requesting the documents created or distributed between December 2017 until the present.

“We are trying to figure out how best to handle a very, difficult large issue,” DeFoor said. “We know that there was communications between the (Curry) administration and Mr. Zahn, so we’re going to do, we’re going to do our charge.”

Records also show JEA has already paid former JEA board member, Alan Howard’s firm more than $56,000 for legal work on the sale process that he voted in favor of when he was a board member. JEA records show they could still owe them another $26,000.

“That’s an absolute conflict and it’s totally unacceptable and I hope we don’t pay a penny of it,” Diamond said.

News4Jax learned Friday that JEA could be on the hook for nearly $13 million in legal fees during its attempt to find a buyer — a process that was overwhelmingly unpopular and mostly took place outside of public scrutiny.

City Councilmembers said invoices show JEA was getting billed by legal teams to work on the sale in January, six months before the JEA board gave its approval to begin looking into potentially selling JEA.

“The legal expenses are absolutely disgusting, the amount of taxpayer dollars thrown at this effort to sell JEA," Diamond said. "What’s worse is some of it was spent without being authorized by JEA.”

To find out how far back JEA sales talks go, the committee talked about interviewing or even getting subpoenas for former CEO Paul McElroy and former City Council President Anna Brosche.

Two years in council chambers Brosche would not allow Curry to speak with the JEA leaders at a council meeting the mayor called.

“Here’s what I would have said. This needs to be done in a transparent way. This is information only. There would be no action taken here today, and that the lens that I would view all of this through would be: Is this good for ratepayers and taxpayers, and is this good for JEA employees?” Curry told News4Jax following the 2018 meeting.

One year ago, Curry said as he ran for re-election, that he would not introduce any legislation to sell the public utility. He never did.

The committee plans to meet again in two weeks and the goal is to report all of its findings to Council President Scott Wilson on or before June 1.

“This does matter to everyone,” DeFoor said. “You’re talking about our fundamental needs being met, right? We’re talking about our water and our electricity and we are talking about people who may not be able to afford all of those things and so the fact that there was an effort to sell our water, sell our utility without our permission, basically, we are going to get to the bottom of it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Diamond also issued a stern warning to anyone who might try to intimidate members of the investigatory committee looking into JEA and suggested that it’s already happening.

“This is about clean government,” Diamond said. “And I’m not gonna use names, and I’m certainly not going to answer or put it out to anyone today, but if it continues to happen I’m not going to be shy about using this pulpit to call it out because I think the people of Jacksonville need to know that this is a legitimate clean and honest process and I’ll just leave it at that.”

The public record request will likely result in millions of pages to go through. The committee is considering creating a public page to review the documents for people following along with the investigation.

Another tool the committee is considering, crowdsourcing for whistleblowers who want to anonymously give a tip on JEA.

TRACKING THE JEA SAGA: News4Jax coverage of the city-owned utility

City Council committee opens JEA probe, submits more than 80 public record requests
City Council committee opens JEA probe, submits more than 80 public record requests

About the Authors:

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

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.