Hightower: JEA privatization attempt 'could be the greatest municipal scandal in the United States, ever'

The Former JEA board Chair and lobbyist discusses the investigation into the utility with the Meninak Club of Jacksonville.

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Former JEA board Chair and lobbyist Mike Hightower says that when all the investigations are complete, the public utility’s failed attempt to privatize “could be the greatest municipal scandal in the United States, ever.”

During a presentation Feb. 3 to the Meninak Club of Jacksonville, Hightower stepped up his criticism toward those involved in the attempt to sell the city-owned utility.

“This will be the greatest scandal in the history of Duval County. But more importantly, if this is where it looks like it could go, this could be the greatest municipal scandal in the United States, ever,” Hightower said.

“By virtue of the money involved, the people involved and the amount of people that were affected,” he said.

Hightower retired from JEA after 16 years on the board and four years as an employed lobbyist on the utility’s staff.

He is a charter member of the nonprofit OurJax, formed Jan. 9.

Hightower has been talking to professional and community organizations in recent weeks to recruit donors to the 501(c)(4) organization whose stated mission is to provide resources to the public and the media to increase transparency regarding JEA.

The OurJax nonprofit has five directors: retired CSX Corp. CEO Michael Ward, Brightway Insurance Executive Chairman David Miller, attorney Audrey Moran, Duval County School Board Chair Warren Jones and Hightower. 

OurJax.com is designed to be a repository for news articles, original documents and information about JEA’s strategic planning process.

The group partners with the First Amendment Foundation to provide financial assistance and advocacy for public records requests from JEA and the city.

During his 47-minute presentation, Hightower talked about the ongoing federal investigation into JEA and a public City Council probe that could begin within two weeks.

Hightower’s analysis built on comments made to Meninak on Jan. 27 by Rick Mullaney, former city general counsel and director of the Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute.

Mullaney said the confidential process used by JEA officials to push privatization has the potential to become the largest scandal in the nearly 52-year history of Jacksonville’s consolidated government.

Particularly, Mullaney cites the Long-Term Performance Unit Plan, which could have cost JEA ratepayers and the city more than $600 million if the utility had been sold to a private company. 

The plan was designed like a private-sector stock-option program as a way for JEA employees to invest in the utility as an incentive. 

On Jan. 30, Mullaney told Daily Record news partner News4Jax that the bonus plan also could have cost the city more than $1 billion in federal tax liability. 

“This is potentially one of the greatest schemes to defraud the taxpayers in the history of our city,” Mullaney told News4Jax.

The JEA board killed the incentive plan Dec. 17 and halted the potential sale of the utility Dec. 24.

The JEA leaders, executives and others who invested in the performance plan could have reaped millions of dollars.

Hightower told Meninak that OurJax has been criticized for keeping the names of its donors confidential.

But Hightower said at least one OurJax contributor received a threat of retribution.

“There’s two reasons we formed a 501(c)(4), for confidentiality because of intimidation and retribution and we make no apologies for it,” Hightower said.

“One of our donors, somehow it got known and was confronted with intimidation when they thought they were going to give to our organization. It’s real, it’s out there and it’s part of our environment. It is wrong and it has to stop.”

He did not identify the OurJax donor or who made the threat.

Hightower confirmed Feb. 3 that OurJax sent Mayor Lenny Curry recommendations for appointees to the JEA board after Curry said Jan. 28 that its six board members intended to resign at the end of February. One board seat is already vacant.

During his speech, Hightower encouraged Meninak members, who include Jacksonville-area business and civic leaders, to use their positions to improve JEA’s leadership.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are business leaders. You are a people of influence. You are people who know people of influence,” Hightower said.

“You’re a small town. Everyone is related here. Everybody is part of this town,” he said.

City Director of Public Affairs Nikki Kimbleton said by email Feb. 3 that Curry is “spending a large portion of this week” considering JEA board appointees.

She said if the mayor does not select a new board and if nominees are not approved by City Council by the end of February, Curry will consider asking exiting board members to stay for a transitional period.

“Think about what you want for this next board. Send those things in. Do it through the press. Do it. Do a little challenge. Give it to the mayor and see what he does with it. Give him no place to go,” Hightower told Meninak.

 “Get somebody up there who’s going to know what to do. … If somebody doesn’t step up, somebody will fill the vacuum,” he added. “If there are not good people to serve other people will step and will fill the vacuum.”