JEA investigation to question Mayor Curry allies

Brian Hughes, Sam Mousa and Tim Baker will be called to testify in the failed sale of the utility.

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A Jacksonville City Council committee will seek the testimony of three allies of Mayor Lenny Curry as it investigates the attempted sale of JEA.

They include Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes, his predecessor, Sam Mousa, and political consultant Tim Baker.

Committee members Rory Diamond, Randy DeFoor and Brenda Priestly Jackson and Council President Scott Wilson voted unanimously June 8 to request the three be deposed by outside counsel Smith Hulsey & Busey LLC as the committee probes the abandoned sale of the city-owned utility.

The committee also will request former JEA board Chair Alan Howard;  Jacksonville Jaguars CFO Kelly Flanagan, a former JEA board member; and former Curry administration Chief Financial Officer Mike Weinstein to be interviewed by the outside counsel. 

“If we stop now, it’s not a complete report in my mind. It would be an interim report,” DeFoor said. “We haven’t interviewed the key witnesses to what happened.”

The committee’s decision to obtain more sworn testimony was made against the joint recommendation of city General Counsel Jason Gabriel and outside counsel Steve Busey. 

The attorneys said June 8 they have collected enough information from nearly 40 witness interviews and more than 400,000 documents to fulfill the committee’s goals and issue a final report.

“We think we know now what happened (at JEA) between 2015 and 2019,” Busey said. “We can accomplish that mission and accomplish recommendations regarding amendments to the code and the charter that would be satisfactory to the committee without completing the investigation to the point where we can prove civil or criminal liability.”

Curry’s circle 

Hughes and Baker co-founded Bold City Strategic Partners LLC, a public consultancy business based in Jacksonville. Hughes and Baker were political strategists in Curry’s 2015 mayoral campaign, helping him unseat incumbent Alvin Brown. 

Mousa proceeded Hughes as city chief administrative officer and operates Mousa Consulting Group LLC, a lobbying firm.

In documents provided to the committee May 15 responding to a subpoena, Florida Power & Light Co. parent NextEra Energy Inc. listed Bold City Strategic Partners and Mousa Consulting as lobbying firms the private utility employed as it took part in JEA’s invitation to negotiate a sale.

Hughes sent a letter to Diamond on May 19 and attached state filings showing Baker removed Hughes from Bold City in December 2017.

“At no time in my professional career have I been an consultant or employee of FPL or any other corporate entity that has been identified as ultimately becoming a bidder in the JEA’s ITN process,” Hughes wrote.

The letter also referenced a Twitter post by The Florida Times-Union reporter Christopher Hong that said Baker produced a letter to FPL stating he “intended to end his work relations with FPL, which began Dec. 21, 2017, on July 31, 2019.”

Seeking testimony

DeFoor made a motion June 8 to obtain the depositions, concerned that the committee had not interviewed anyone representing the Curry administration or the JEA board members who voted to hire fired CEO Aaron Zahn.

She also discussed obtaining testimony from former JEA board member Husein Cumber, husband of District 5 Council member LeAnna Cumber, and former board Chair April Green, but they were not included in her final motion.

Flanagan, Howard and Husein Cumber voted in favor of hiring Zahn over then-JEA CFO Melissa Dykes.

Flanagan also sat on the board that voted Jan. 28 to fire Zahn for willful misconduct, gross negligence and his role in the failed sale of JEA.

“All three of those people voted for Aaron Zahn over Melissa Dykes on an interim basis, even though Aaron Zahn and no electrical (utility) experience. We need to interview at least one, if not all three of those people, to find out why,” DeFoor said. 

DeFoor, a Republican, said she wanted to “connect the dots” and acknowledged Baker worked on her 2019 Council campaign and was a strategist for the campaigns of Council members Ron Salem and LeAnna Cumber.

“In order to give our fellow Council (members) credibility, we need to interview these people,” DeFoor said. 

Diamond said he didn’t agree with all of DeFoor and Priestly Jackson’s recommendations, but wanted to have unanimity among the committee members “that we know the truth.”

“If we issue a report where there’s dissent, I think we would have done something wrong. I don’t think we will satisfy what the people of Jacksonville are expecting of us,” Diamond said.

Without the additional interviews, Busey said a final report could be generated by the end of August, but additional depositions will push that into October.

Gabriel and Busey said they have conferred with the federal officials conducting a grand jury investigation into JEA and are trying “to be differential” to the U.S. Department of Justice to not interfere with the Grand Jury investigation. 

“We have been informed there are some witnesses that the Department of Justice prefer that we not interview,” Busey said. “There are others that we can go forward on.” 

Additional testimony

Busey said in an email after the meeting June 9 that his firm and city attorneys have received sworn statements from JEA interim CEO Paul McElroy, who led JEA for 16 years before Zahn’s hiring, and interim JEA CFO and Treasurer Joseph Orfano.

Busey’s team also will complete sworn interviews with the three Curry administration officials who acted as lead negotiators for the potential sale with nine private companies.

Busey said city Treasurer Randall Barnes has given a deposition. The other two negotiators, city engineer Robin Smith and Deputy CAO Stephanie Burch, are scheduled to deliver testimony June 9 and June 11, respectively.

The committee also is requesting testimony from Dykes and former JEA Vice President and Legal Officer Lynne Rhode. 

Dykes, who was appointed interim CEO after Zahn’s departure but was fired without cause April 28 by the JEA board, declined to testify May 20 through a letter from her attorney, Hank M. Coxe III.

Busey and city attorneys told the committee they expect financial firms JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley to fulfill the committee’s subpoena for documents by the end of June.

Busey said they also want to see the communications between JEA, the city and investment bankers.

Legal fees

The committee authorized $350,000 from its $1.85 million legal budget approved Oct. 29 by Council to continue Smith Hulsey & Busey’s contracted services in the investigation. 

The firm has charged the city $444,285 as of June 8, according to the general counsel’s office. 

Smith Hulsey & Busey will notify the city when it reaches $700,000 in legal services so the committee can reassess the budget and need for additional work from outside counsel.