Attorneys leading the city’s investigation produce a list of eight additional witnesses to interview before Dec. 31.
The City Council committee investigating JEA’s 2019 attempt to privatize voted Sept. 28 to seek subpoenas for companies linked to Mayor Lenny Curry’s former political consultant Tim Baker.
The Council Special Investigatory Committee wants records from Baker’s consulting companies Bold City Strategic Partners and Data Targeting Research LLC.
The political consultant declined to provide the records during sworn testimony earlier this month with Council’s outside attorney Steve Busey.
At issue is Baker’s work for NextEra Energy Inc. subsidiary Florida Power & Light. NextEra offered to pay $11.05 billion for JEA in the city-owned utility’s canceled invitation to negotiate issued in August 2019.
Busey wants to obtain communications and Bold City’s contract with FPL. Baker told Council investigators during his deposition the consulting contract was active from Dec. 21, 2017, through July 31, 2019.
Baker gave a presentation during a July 10, 2019, off-site JEA senior leadership team meeting at The Club Continental in Orange Park. Plans were drafted there for the resolution that JEA’s board of directors would vote on July 23, 2019, to issue the ITN.
“We found in our investigation huge ethics issues that should be investigated,” Busey said. “When you look at the fact that Mr. Baker was under contract with FPL and participated during the cone of silence period at that Club Continental meeting on July 10, that raises why he was there and who was paying him to do what raises huge ethical issues.”
Busey added that a $7,500-per-month consulting contract with former city Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa by FPL to lobby Council members and signed the day of the ITN vote also raised ethical concerns.
Busey’s team deposed Mousa under oath Aug. 27.
“There’s just a fertile field of ethics issues there and related procurement issues, the entire manner in which the ITN was handled including the Club Continental meeting, and the degree to which the whole ITN process was in large part masked from the public,” Busey said.
Baker asserted constitutional privileges as a defense for not releasing Bold City’s contract and communications with FPL, according to Busey.
“Tim Baker, as an individual citizen, has rights of privacy under the Florida Constitution. But his companies through which he did business with Florida Power & Light … are entities which did the contracting,” Busey said. “Those are the entities we’d like to issue subpoenas to.”
The attorney advised committee Chair Brenda Priestly Jackson and committee members Scott Wilson and Randy DeFoor that the subpoenas are within the legal scope of the committee’s legislative charge.
The subpoenas have to be approved by the Council Rules Committee, also chaired by Priestly Jackson, before they’re authorized.
Council investigators also added city CFO Patrick “Joey” Greive and Deno Hicks, former senior lobbyist for government relations at The Southern Group, to its list of witnesses in the JEA probe.
Law firm Foley & Lardner LLP, which former JEA executives contracted to work on the ITN, enlisted Hicks to lobby Council members during the privatization effort’s cone of silence period, Busey said. The ITN procurement method was used to prohibit anyone who could potentially make a decision on the sale from speaking publicly from Aug. 2 until the negotiators made its recommendation to the board in January.
Greive helped draft the request for proposals that led to Public Financial Management Inc.’s work on a 2018 report that showed what JEA’s value could be on the open market.
The Council’s outside legal team at Smith Hulsey & Busey LLC plan to approach six additional witnesses for informal interviews to provide insight into JEA’s privatization efforts over the next three months.
Busey requested the committee’s approval to interview former Council President Anna Lopez Brosche; Public Financial Management Managing Director Michael Mace; JEA Chief Legal Counsel Jody Brooks; former board chair and lobbyist Mike Hightower; interim CEO Paul McElroy; and a representative from legal firm Holland & Knight.
Council member Ron Salem and DeFoor asked attorneys to set up interviews with past JEA board members who hired the later-fired CEO Aaron Zahn, focusing on Camille Lee-Johnson.
She delegated authority to Zahn to administer a canceled bonus plan tied to the value of JEA that could have cost ratepayers more than $600 million had the utility been sold.
Council President Tommy Hazouri issued a memo Sept. 25 extending the committee’s work through Dec. 31.
The committee unanimously approved a $300,000 increase in Busey’s budget Sept. 28 to cover the cost of the time extension and additional interviews.
Council approved a $1.8 million cap for outside counsel in its JEA probe when it voted Dec. 10 to hire Smith Hulsey & Busey. The committee’s 3-0 vote increases the firm’s budget to $1.45 million.
The city has paid $1.075 million for the investigation to date, according to the general counsel’s office.
Zahn reaches out
Attorneys working for Zahn have sent letters to several Council members citing them as possible material witnesses in JEA’s lawsuit against its fired CEO in the 4th Judicial Circuit Court in Duval County.
Council member Garrett Dennis released a letter he received Sept. 28 from firm Moran Reeves Conn requesting he preserve all documents, communications and social media data that could be linked to Zahn’s employment, the canceled bonus plan and the ITN.
DeFoor, Priestly Jackson and Council member Joyce Morgan said during the meeting they had received similar communications from Zahn’s legal team.
City General Counsel Jason Gabriel requested all letters related to the case be sent to his office so city attorneys know which Council members have been approached.
He said Sept 28 it’s likely all 19 Council members received the same or similar letters to be prepared to testify as material witnesses.
JEA filed the lawsuit June 5, alleging Zahn knew his July 2019 employment contract violated Florida law and says he could have received $23 million from the bonus plan he recommended the utility board to approve.
Attorneys for JEA also want the court to halt arbitration on Zahn’s possible post-termination compensation that is part of his employment contract.