By Eric Wallace | Senior Producer, I-TEAM, News4Jax.com
Attorneys for former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn have asked a judge to move his upcoming federal trial on conspiracy and wire fraud charges to Tampa, arguing he cannot get a fair trial in Jacksonville.
Zahn was indicted in March, along with former JEA Chief Financial Officer Ryan Wannemacher. The two are scheduled to go on trial in May 2023.
The charges stem from the attempted sale of the city-owned utility, and what prosecutors say was an attempt to take millions in personal profits from the sale through a controversial bonus plan, which would have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
In their motion, Zahn’s attorneys refer to a social psychologist’s review of more than 600 news items about Zahn, dating back to 2018 when he was in the running to become the utility’s CEO.
The psychologist’s review found that the pretrial publicity was “overwhelmingly negative” in how Zahn was portrayed and “undermined Zahn’s fair trial rights by helping to create a presumption of guilt.”
It also points to the media coverage following the work of the City Council’s Special Investigative Committee in 2020, looking into the attempted sale of JEA.
Attorneys also relied on a community survey conducted by a jury research firm. The phone survey included about 400 people in the Tampa area and a little more than 200 in the Jacksonville area.
According to the motion, a little more than half of the people in the Jacksonville portion of the survey were aware of the case against Zahn, and of that group, 68% had a “preconceived notion” that Zahn was guilty. Attorneys contrast that to the Tampa area, where only 3% were aware of the case.
Zahn’s attorneys also argued that any potential jurors in the Jacksonville area would have a potential monetary interest in the case, as it involves the utility providing electricity, water and sewer throughout the Jacksonville area. They point to cases in other states involving public utilities in which trials were moved for similar reasons.
While it wasn’t used as a reason to move the trial, the motion did state that Zahn now lives in the Tampa area. Shortly after the indictment, Zahn and his wife sold their Jacksonville Beach home for nearly $2.4 million, which was $1.1 million more than what it was purchased for about three years earlier.
Both Jacksonville and Tampa are within the Middle District of Florida within the federal district court system.
Prosecutors will have a chance to respond to the motion to move the trial before a judge will rule.
Defense attorneys filed the motion just hours after a status conference on the case, during which they updated the judge and prosecutors on their efforts to review evidence in the case. The judge set another hearing in January, at which point attorneys may ask to delay the trial to give them more time to prepare.