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Jax Daily Record Monday, Feb. 10, 202004:20 PM EST

Special City Council committee launches JEA investigation

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Committee seeks all communications from city-owned utility about potential sale, expects nearly 5 million documents.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

 A special City Council investigatory committee looking into the effort to sell JEA issued an 84-point records request to the utility Feb. 10 that includes all communications with Mayor Lenny Curry and his close political advisers. 

In its first meeting, the three-member panel of Council members Rory Diamond, Brenda Priestly Jackson and Randy DeFoor set the scope of its investigation that will examine the city-owned utility’s canceled invitation to negotiate a sale and employee bonus plan.

The committee seeks emails, text messages and contracts from JEA’s senior leadership team, board members and outside financial and legal firms hired to work on the ITN.

It also set the tone for the five-month process.

Diamond, the committee chair, issued a warning near the end of the meeting to individuals he said are behind an effort to discredit the three-member panel and its work. 

Diamond declined to name who he thinks is working against the committee, but he said that could change.

“But if it continues to happen, I’m not going to be shy about using this pulpit to call them out. I think the people of Jacksonville need to know this is a legitimate, clean and honest process. I’ll just leave it at that,” Diamond said.

During media interviews after the hearing, Diamond would not say if his comments were directed to anyone in Curry’s office

“There are some people who don’t want us up there. They don’t want us to investigate. They want all this to end and go away, and they’re making efforts to make that happen. I simply won’t allow that to happen. We’re going to investigate, we’re going to get to the bottom of this, and we will not be deterred,” Diamond told reporters.

Council President Scott Wilson called for the committee’s formation Jan. 20 and wants the panel to issue a report of its findings by June 30.

Diamond said the city Office of General Counsel’s employment investigation into former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn has produced 1.5 million documents, and he expects nearly 5 million records to come from the committee’s request.

“Obviously, we don’t need that many documents, but we need the 5,000 in there that really matter,” Diamond said. “We’re going to be doing really smart drill-downs on the data so we can get the most important emails, the most important memos.” 

Diamond said the city Office of General Counsel’s employment investigation into former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn produced 1.5 million documents and he expects nearly 5 million records to come from the committee’s request.

Eleven additional Council members attended the committee hearing. The committee added former city Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa and both JEA sale negotiating teams to its request for communication documents. That was suggested by Council member Garrett Dennis.

The request also included Curry, Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes and Curry political strategist Tim Baker.

DeFoor asked that the records request include the loss of an electric sales contract in December 2017 with Nassau County’s public utility to Florida Power & Light Co., whose parent company submitted a bid to buy JEA.

The Council Auditor’s Office noted in a Jan. 23 memo that JEA’s loss of that contract was used to justify a negative financial outlook and to push the ITN.

“I think this goes back many years. I don’t have evidence to show, but there’s a possibility … that we’re going to find this plan was in place for a long time,” DeFoor said. “So, I think if we can get to that critical point of how we lost that contract … it may be the thread that we start pulling on that shows, in fact, what was the plan.” 

Council member Joyce Morgan suggested adding former Council President Anna Brosche to the witness list that already includes former JEA CEO Paul McElroy and former JEA board Chair and lobbyist Mike Hightower. 

Morgan noted she saw an effort to exclude Council from the 2018 effort to privatize JEA. 

City attorneys and Council’s independent lawyers from Smith Hulsey & Busey will be compiling a list of witnesses. 

Diamond said he expects to have public witness testimony at the committee’s next meeting Feb. 24.

The committee will build an anonymous whistleblower website to crowdsource tips and leads for its investigation, possibly with the assistance of City Ethics Director Carla Miller of the nonprofit 501(c)(4) OurJax advocacy group.

JEA union members told committee members there is fear of retribution if anyone comes forward with information. 

“The JEA employees have been through pure heck in the last 2½ years, not knowing if they were going to have a job in a month, a week, a day,” said Ronnie Burris, LiUNA Local 630 business manager. “They will never feel that they can be respected as long as the current people are in.” 

Diamond said all documents and testimony will be made public on the special committee’s page on the city’s website, coj.net.

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