Brenda Priestly Jackson, the City Council’s JEA investigatory committee chair, says the results of the probe into the attempt to sell Jacksonville’s municipal utility proved her theory.
“My overarching belief was there was an attempt, with a lack of transparency, a lack of adherence to the (city) charter and Florida statues, to engage in a sale of our municipal utility,” she said in an interview Jan. 5.
Priestly Jackson said routine functions like hiring financial advisers and outside consultants were used to “camouflage” the underlying attempt to sell JEA.
The investigation and report released Jan. 4 drafted by Council’s outside legal representative Smith Hulsey & Busey found Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration engaged in a multiyear effort to explore selling the public water and electric utility.
Fired JEA CEO Aaron Zahn and the former senior leadership team “intentionally misrepresented” the utility’s financial health to the community and JEA board to advance the sale effort, according to the report.
Priestly Jackson said that the Curry administration’s desire to privatize the utility wasn’t a surprise to her when she took office in July 2019.
She expected the proposal could come to Council during her term and that doesn’t alter her level of trust in the mayor’s office.
“It wasn’t that the executive branch undertook this exercise to explore (a sale). It was contrary to the will of the public. When they said stop, it continued,” Priestly Jackson said.
City Director of Public Affairs Nikki Kimbleton said in an email Jan. 4 that Curry would not be giving media interviews about the report.
The mayor’s office was not given an advance copy of the report before it was released to the public.
During a COVID-19 vaccination news conference Jan. 4 at the Prime Osborn Convention Center, Curry alleged the report’s release was designed to create a media narrative before his administration could react.
“I expect the report to make claims stated as facts that aren’t based on facts, based on what we’ve seen over the last year the way they’ve released their interviews,” Curry said, according to Daily Record news partner News4Jax.com.
“And I’m not going to react to that. You guys (news reporters) have had access to me throughout all of the discussions of any issue we faced in the city of Jacksonville, particularly this issue over the last couple of years, and I’ve answered those questions with great clarity. Take their report. Do what you think is right with it. I’m moving on for the city of Jacksonville and making sure people get vaccinated.”
The committee members who led the Council’s yearlong investigation are urging Jacksonville residents to read the 132-page report and the companion 242-page chronology in its entirety.
“I do think that it’s incredibly important that every citizen read this report. It’s an unbiased, fact-based account that really tells what happened,” committee member Randy DeFoor said.
Council President Tommy Hazouri, who took former president Scott Wilson’s seat on the committee from November through December, campaigned for Curry during the mayor’s 2018 reelection campaign.
The former mayor and 46-year career politician said he doesn’t apologize for supporting Curry but he said the report did shake his trust.
“I think it’s a trail of tears, the whole report. I don’t think we’ve found the end of the trail yet,” Hazouri said.
“It’s a pattern of deceit. This was the most blatant pattern of deceit I’ve seen in my public career,” he said.
When asked if she thought the report could impact Curry’s ability to execute his remaining second-term agenda, including the $245.3 million incentive package for the Jacksonville Jaguars Lot J development, DeFoor said she could not speak for her Council colleagues.
“I’m going to continue to do what I think is best for the community,” she said.
Watchdog and civic groups
The Jacksonville Civic Council was one of the first community organizations to call for a grand jury investigation into the JEA sale attempt.
In January 2019, the group of about 80 Northeast Florida CEOs called for City Council to work with its independent legal counsel in cooperation with U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida for a public investigation.
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a grand jury subpoena in April 2019 for JEA records and documents.
According to the report, Civic Council President and CEO Jeanne Miller told Council investigators the organization’s JEA subcommittee scheduled a June 10, 2019, meeting with Zahn to discuss his “doom and gloom” financial projections for JEA.
Zahn invited Civic Council members not on the JEA subcommittee who had conflicts of interest, including Gunster attorney Bill Adams and Rogers Towers attorney and former Mayor John Delaney.
The report says both firms represented Florida Power & Light Co. at the time, a subsidiary of interested JEA buyer NextEra Energy Inc.
Miller said in a text message Jan. 5 that Delaney was not contracted with FPL until after the June 10, 2019, meeting, contrary to the report.
“(The Civic Council’s) conflict records did not accurately reflect the timing of his engagement,” Miller wrote. “After (Delaney ) was engaged professionally, he was excluded from all (Civic Council) discussions/deliberations about the matter until the (Civic Council) statement/work product was public per our Conflict of Interest Policy.”
The nonprofit community watchdog group OurJax sees parallels between how the Curry administration engaged in the attempted JEA sale and ongoing negotiations with the Jacksonville Jaguars for owner Shad Khan’s $450 million Lot J development near TIAA Bank Field.
Audrey Moran, who sits on the OurJax board of directors, said Jan. 5 the group sees the same sense of urgency and lack of transparency in the Curry administration’s Lot J negotiations that the report found with its JEA privatization push.
OurJax says the Lot J development could be positive for the city, but worries the two-year talks over the deal’s public incentive package has similar transparency issues.
“When something is a rush, that should be a red flag. It takes time to build community consensus. And when that happens, better decisions are made,” Moran said.
“OurJax cannot help but believe that if our Council members read that report page-by-page, footnote-by-footnote, they’ll be hard-pressed to pass Lot J in its current form.”
Zahn: Report ‘lacking’
Zahn issued a statement Jan. 4 through his attorney John Mullen that accused the report of lacking “objective analysis of the issues” and called the document one-sided.
Mullen alleges the report has “unsupported inferences” and “preordained conclusions” about Zahn’s actions and role in crafting JEA’s strategic planning process that led to the sale attempt.
“The report’s obvious bias should not be a surprise to anyone has read the so called ‘interviews’ on which many of the report’s conclusions are purportedly based,” Mullen wrote.
“A brief review shows that JEA coerced the testimony of its employees by threatening to fire them with cause or pay them a severance if they cooperated. Witnesses were most often solicited to testify as to what they assumed, speculated or heard in the media – instead of testify about facts.”
Mullen is representing Zahn in litigation related to his termination by JEA’s board and his right to arbitration of about $1 million in compensation.
A JEA spokesperson said Jan. 5 the utility declined to comment on Zahn’s allegations due to the active legal case.