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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Feb. 13, 202005:20 AM EST

The Mendenhall Report: JEA probe facing mountain of documents

Leader of City Council investigation into abandoned sale of the city-owned utility offers insight on how the work will be done.
by: Mike Mendenhall Associate Editor

During its probe into JEA, a City Council special investigative committee will amass nearly 5 million documents, according to its chair, Council member Rory Diamond.

About 1.5 million records have been produced through the city Office of General Counsel’s employment investigation into former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn. Diamond said the Council investigators will be “doing really smart drill-downs on the data” to isolate the most important documents and memos. 

The bulk of the work will be done by the general counsel attorneys and the Council’s outside lawyers from Smith Hulsey & Busey LLC.

But Diamond said during the Feb. 11 Council agenda meeting that city attorneys “don’t have the bandwidth” to wade through millions of pages of emails, text messages, voice messages and data to meet the committee’s June 30 report deadline.

Council President Scott Wilson told Council member Ron Salem during the meeting that Smith Hulsey & Busey has charged the city $102,000 since January from the $1.85 million Council budgeted for the firm’s services.

Some of that search will be narrowed with software searching for keywords, terms and names that are of interest to the Council investigators.

Council member Randy DeFoor, a member of the investigative committee, said the city and independent attorneys will need more help to wade through the documents.

“What we really need is an investigator to do a lot of the legwork for us who can present their findings to us and interview a lot of the witnesses,” DeFoor said. “To me, the first place I would go to are the executives that left the JEA because they left for a reason.” 

For DeFoor, the list would include former JEA CEO Paul McElroy, who was leading the utility when the most recent privatization was explored, and former Chief Compliance Office Angelia Hiers. 

DeFoor, an attorney, acknowledges it’s atypical to begin with witnesses over documentation but with Wilson expecting the report by June 30, she said there’s not enough time otherwise.

Diamond told reporters after the committee’s first hearing Feb. 10 that he believes 4½ months is too brief for an investigation of this size. 

The committee’s charge issued by Wilson and the General Counsel’s Office allows the three-member panel to request an extension if the evidence warrants more time. But that will have to be approved by the next Council president, expected to be Council Vice President Tommy Hazouri.

The scope of the probe laid out by Wilson orders the committee to look into issues related to JEA’s invitation to negotiate the sale of its assets to a private company, as well as JEA’s canceled Long-Term Performance Unit Plan that could have cost JEA up to $600 million if the utility had been sold.

DeFoor said she wants to know the origins of the push to sell JEA — “the who, what, when, where and why,” she said.

The work also could spotlight actions that could be addressed in the city charter.

“Until we understand that, you don’t even know what changes we need to make to the charter so this doesn’t happen again,” she said.

The committee will look at correspondence between JEA officials and Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration. That includes all electronic communications to JEA from Curry, Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes, Curry political strategist Tim Baker, former city Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa and both JEA sale negotiating teams.

Diamond told reporters Feb. 10 he expects piecing together some of the details will be difficult.

“I think it’s going to be really difficult to get to the bottom of that because how do you prove two people had a private conversation if they don’t come forward and say they had a private conversation?” Diamond said. “So that’s why we’re going to bring as much evidence as we can to say, ‘OK, you say there was no conversation, but look at this email. Why are you doing that if there’s no conversation?’”

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