Former Kids Hope Alliance CEO had sex with subordinate, misused position, investigation finds

A sex scandal and an attempt to funnel grant money: that's what new documents reveal in the investigation of the former Kids Hope Alliance CEO.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A city investigation into Joe Peppers, the former head of the Kids Hope Alliance, uncovered he was having an intimate relationship with a senior leadership team member that went sour while they both worked at the city-funded office. An audit also found that Peppers tried to funnel grant money to friends and business associates who may have not qualified for the grant.

The investigation that was released Monday began in August of 2019 after the Office of Inspector General (OIG) received an anonymous letter detailing issues at the agency that oversees children’s programs in Jacksonville.

The letter outlined concerns involving KHA operations, senior leadership, mismanagement within the organization and allegations of inappropriate relationships involving Peppers.

During its investigation, the OIG conducted interviews that seemed to back up those initial claims.

Peppers was first placed on administrative leave on Aug. 15, 2019, as the investigation got underway. He then handed over his city-issued cellphone, a phone that would later become key to the city’s investigation.

Through interviews, investigators found that Peppers had a consensual sexual relationship with an unnamed senior leadership team member who directly reported to him from Aug. 2018 until Feb. 2019.

The issues cropped up when that relationship began to deteriorate.

While there are no existing City of Jacksonville policies and/or procedures that address non-professional relationships between supervisors and subordinate employees, investigators found that Peppers “may have violated City of Jacksonville Workplace Violence, sending text messages and comments (refer to page 13), that “… expressed or implied threats, remarks or other acts… or subjected another individual to emotional distress … and expressed verbal intimidation …” to the senior leadership team member.”

On April 15, 2019, the investigation found that Peppers sent the subordinate a text message stating verbatim, “You’re only loyal when your life or well-being are threatened” and “this is who I see now” referring to six different interracial pornography images sent as part of the text message.

Peppers also said he would disclose personal information to the team member’s child, the investigation found.

The senior leadership team member said Peppers “crossed the line” when he mentioned her child, according to the investigation.

The text message came a few months after the senior leadership team member told Peppers she planned to resign in August of 2019. After the relationship ended, Peppers began treating the senior leadership team member differently at work, the investigation found, which “caused tremendous emotional stress on a daily basis, which created a hostile work environment.”

The investigation also found that Peppers “exchanged, transmitted, and/or retained numerous non-COJ business communications related to adult content of a sexual nature and at least one adult-content photo of himself that were inappropriate for the workplace and/or a COJ-issued cellphone.”

Peppers also misused his position by recommending two organizations for consideration of grant funding in the amount of $100,000 each from a non-profit organization, according to the city’s investigation.

The organizations are owned by people that Peppers had a personal or professional relationship with and did not appear to meet the grant criteria of performing services tied to adolescent drug treatment, investigators found.

The investigation found that Peppers had not been transparent about his conflicting relationships.

The OIG noted that no existing city policies address such disclosures, other than the disclosure of financial interests in the organizations, but Peppers' actions at a minimum, lead to an appearance of conflicts of interest, the investigation found.

Peppers resigned May 2 during the investigation and, through his lawyer, declined to be interviewed, according to the city.

Peppers issued a statement to News4Jax that reads:

A city spokeswoman sent a statement to News4Jax about the investigation:

About the Authors:

Corley Peel is a Texas native and Texas Tech graduate who covered big stories in Joplin, Missouri, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Jacksonville, Florida before returning to the Lone Star State. When not reporting, Corley enjoys hot yoga, Tech Football, and finding the best tacos in town.

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.