Jury selection underway in federal trial of former JEA executives

Aaron Zahn and Ryan Wannemacher are charged with wire fraud and conspiracy in the abandoned sale of the city-owned utility.

  • By Ric Anderson
  • | 8:23 p.m. February 15, 2024
  • | 4 Free Articles Remaining!
Fired JEA Managing Director and CEO Aaron Zahn and CFO Ryan Wannemacher are charged with conspiracy and fraud in the abandoned effort to sell the city-owned utility.
Fired JEA Managing Director and CEO Aaron Zahn and CFO Ryan Wannemacher are charged with conspiracy and fraud in the abandoned effort to sell the city-owned utility.
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The past and present were both visible to Aaron Zahn and Ryan Wannemacher on Feb. 15 from the 13th floor of the Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse. 

The courthouse’s east-facing windows offered a view of the upper floors of the former JEA headquarters at Laura and Church streets, where Zahn and Wannemacher once served as top corporate executives with combined salaries of more than $889,000. 

Along the 13th floor’s south hallway were the doors to Courtroom 13A, where jury selection began for the men’s trial on allegations of conspiracy and wire fraud.

The trial comes nearly two years after Zahn and Wannemacher were indicted in March 2022 in connection with an alleged scheme to steal money that would have been generated by the sale of the city-owned utility. That effort was halted in 2019.

Zahn is the utility’s former CEO, and Wannemacher served as its chief financial officer.

Prosecutors claim the two conspired to devise a bonus plan that would have paid them and other JEA employees millions of dollars if the utility had been sold.

The first of two scheduled days of jury selection began with Senior U.S. District Judge Brian Davis telling prospective jurors they would not be sequestered during the trial. Davis said the proceedings would begin each day at 9 a.m. and end no later than 5:30 p.m. 

The trial will have an uncommon arrangement: a separate jury for each defendant. 

The day ended with the seating of 16 jurors and four alternates who will decide the case against Zahn. The panel comprises 10 women and 10 men.

Selection of the jury that will hear the evidence against Wannemacher will begin Feb. 16, with Zahn and his attorneys excused for that session.

Prosecutors were seated to Davis’ right, with the defense sitting at two tables to his left. 

Zahn and his defense team sat at one table, with Wannemacher and his attorneys seated behind them. Assistant U.S. Attorney Tysen Duva, the lead prosecutor, was joined by Assistant U.S. Attorney Chip Corsmeier. 

Zahn’s attorneys included Eddie Suarez, Brian Albritton and Raquel Jefferson. They are based in Tampa.

Wannemacher was seated with Jim Felman, his lead attorney, and an assistant for Felman. Felman also is based in Tampa.

Forty-six prospective jurors were seated in the gallery to await the selection. One man wore a ball cap with a JEA logo backward on his head. 

The group included teachers, a voice actor, retirees, unemployed individuals and office workers. 

Much of the morning was spent with Davis, the prosecutors and Zahn and his lawyers questioning individual prospective jurors in sidebar conversations. 

Those conversations came after Davis asked jurors if they had any exceptional circumstances that would prevent them from serving on the jury and whether any had prior knowledge of the case through the media, conversations with friends or from other sources.

Nineteen of the 46 indicated they knew something about the case. 

Shortly after a lunch break, each prospective juror stood in open court and answered a set of questions, including their occupations, level of education, any military service in their background and whether they had previously served on a jury. 

There were occasionally light moments, as when one prospective juror introduced himself to Davis by saying, “Good afternoon, your majesty” before quickly correcting himself to “your honor.” 

Other questions included whether the prospective jurors knew the defendants, witnesses, attorneys or Davis. 

When Davis asked if any had utility service through JEA, 25 raised their hands. None of those 25 indicated their business relationship with JEA would affect their ability to render a fair verdict. 

In January, prosecutors filed a list of 35 witnesses they could call to testify. 

Prosecutors allege that the crimes occurred in or around March 2019 through November of that year. 

Under federal law, a conviction for wire fraud carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years and fines up to $250,000 for each act of the crime along with probation and restitution. The conspiracy charge is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. 

On the conspiracy charge, prosecutors do not have to prove that Zahn and Wannemacher carried out the alleged plan but rather that they formulated it and took overt actions to advance it.

Today the utility remains in the city’s hands, as the JEA board of directors halted a sale process in December 2019. 

And JEA’s headquarters have moved into a $72 million, seven-story building that opened in 2023 at Adams and Pearl streets.



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