State Attorney Finishes Jacksonville City Council Sunshine Law Probe; No Charges Filed
The State Attorney’s Office issued a report Monday concluding a year-long investigation of potential Florida Sunshine Law violations by City Council members during the last two council leadership races.
While the report concludes that “available evidence would not support a criminal prosecution of any individual council member,” it found thousands of calls between the lawmakers leading up to the 2017 and 2018 council president races.
Our Jacksonville Daily Record news partner reports investigation focused on phone calls and interaction between former council president and mayoral candidate Anna Lopez Brosche and council member Garrett Dennis from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 28.
The investigation also analyzed communication between Dennis and council members Katrina Brown, Reginald Brown, Reginald Gaffney and Sam Newby during that time.
State Attorney for the 4th Judicial Circuit Melissa Nelson received the report from Chief Assistant State Attorney Mac Heavener Monday.
Florida’s Sunshine Law prohibits council members from discussing official business – like pledging a vote for one council president candidate over another – outside of publicly noticed meetings.
Council members often pledge support for president and vice president candidates during noticed meetings ahead of a late May vote at City Hall. The winners hold the leadership position for the next year beginning July 1.
The scrutiny began in February 2018 when Chief Assistant State Attorneys Heavener and L.E. Hutton met with Mayor Lenny Curry’s staff and the city Office of Inspector General to discuss an ethics complaint filed by Sam Mousa, Curry’s chief administrative officer.
The complaint alleged that Dennis gave council member John Crescimbeni a business card with the names of four other members who would vote for him over Aaron Bowman in the 2018 leadership race outside of a noticed meeting.
Crescimbeni did not run for president in 2018, but did so unsuccessfully against Brosche in 2017
It was later revealed through interviews that Curry’s former Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, Ali Korman-Shelton, told Mousa about the interaction.
By March, the Office of Inspector General obtained Dennis’s phone records based on the complaint.
State Attorney’s Office Investigator Tim Adams and Hutton attended a May 15 noticed meeting between Dennis and Brosche, who were discussing alleged Sunshine Law violations made by Bowman, who was then council vice president.
“During that meeting, Council Member Dennis exhibited a clear understanding of the Florida Sunshine Law and the requirements that law placed on elected members of the Jacksonville City Council,” Heavener’s report states.
Following that meeting and after reviewing phone records, the State Attorney’s Office launched its own expanded inquiry.
The investigation centers on what investigators described as “significant telephonic contact” between Dennis, Brosche and her council assistant, Jeneen Sanders.
According to the report, Dennis and Sanders shared 3,128 contacts between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 28, 2018.
“Some calls to Sanders also showed Council Member Dennis used a *67 function, which is [a] selective caller identification block that would indicate some attempt to conceal identity,” the report states.
During that time, there were 454 calls between Dennis and Brosche. Investigators found that 450 of those calls took place before the Feb. 28 ethics complaint.
The report notes that those calls regularly occurred around scheduled council meetings and standing committee meetings.
Investigators then reviewed other “irregular” communication trends, including 230 contacts between Dennis and Katrina Brown that year.
Katrina Brown and Reginald Brown, who are not related, were indicted on federal fraud charges in 2018 and are suspended from the legislative body.
There were 12,598 contacts between the Browns from Oct. 1, 2017, to July 18, 2018.
Katrina Brown also shared 1,804 contacts with Gaffney and 737 contacts with Newby.
Dennis, Katrina Brown, Reginald Brown, Gaffney and Newby voted for Brosche in the 2017 council presidency race. Brosche defeated Crescimbeni, 11-8.
Brosche then installed Dennis as chair of the Finance Committee. Gaffney, Reginald Brown and Katrina Brown also served on that committee.
The State Attorney’s Office conducted, or attempted to conduct, interviews with council members between Aug. 29 and Sept. 19.
Mousa, Korman-Shelton, Curry and his Chief of Staff Brian Hughes also were interviewed between September 2018 and February 2019.
On Jan. 29, Korman-Shelton told the State Attorney’s Office that she spoke to Curry’s staff about the interaction between Crescimbeni and Dennis in February 2018.
Interviews conducted with Curry, Mousa and Hughes in September corroborated her account, which satisfied investigators.
Crescimbeni denied the interaction during in-person interviews in September, December and again Feb. 4.
Bowman was interviewed in September about the incident and in December about the claims he made about Dennis trying to persuade others not to vote for him, based on conversations he had with Katrina Brown and council member Tommy Hazouri.
Dennis initially spoke with the State Attorney’s Office in August, but cut his interview short to consult with his attorney.
He did not speak with investigators again.
During her first interview with investigators in August, Brosche said she was not aware of any Sunshine Law violations but that she had contacted other colleagues about the “times of meetings or their attendance.”
In January, after launching her campaign for mayor, Brosche declined an invitation to speak with the State Attorney’s Office for a second time.
The State Attorney’s Office also was concerned that Sanders was serving as a conduit between Dennis and Brosche since phone records showed that she had more contact with Dennis than with Brosche, and that Dennis had more phone calls with her than with his wife.
Sanders denied any wrongdoing during a Sept. 10 interview.
She provided a sworn statement Jan. 7, where she said the large volume of calls between her and Dennis stemmed from their friendship outside of City Hall.
Investigators held other interviews with Gaffney and Newby in September. Both said they had no knowledge about potential Sunshine Law violations.
According to the report, Office of General Counsel attorney Jon Phillips was present during many of the interviews with council members, which the State Attorney’s Office said may have had “a chilling effect” on those interactions.
Katrina and Reginald Brown were not interviewed because of the pending federal charges.
No charges filed
Heavener said in the report that the State Attorney’s Office did not pursue Sunshine Law violation charges because investigators could not see the content of the communications.
“We could never establish beyond a reasonable doubt that any one call or any group of particular calls violated Florida Sunshine Law,” the report said.
“Common sense dictates that Council members do not spend 62 hours, 74 hours, and 38 hours on the phone with other council members discussing simple scheduling matters or irregular personal matters,” the report concluded.
Brosche, Dennis respond
Brosche’s mayoral campaign spokeswoman Ryan Wiggins said today in an email that the timing of the report is not coincidental. She said the complaint was filed because Brosche intended to run for mayor.
“The findings were then released coinciding with absentee ballots being sent to voters to stir up speculation of wrongdoing despite the fact that the investigation didn't result in charges being filed,” Wiggins said.
“Nelson isn't filing charges because there is no evidence that Anna violated sunshine laws. This entire thing is just another taxpayer-funded political stunt by the Curry administration,” she said.
Wiggins added that it’s important that “political games aren’t allowed to cloud the public's trust of their elected officials.”
“Transparency is vital to our democracy. Anna has always maintained that she has abided by sunshine laws and fully cooperated with the State Attorney’s Office. She appreciates State Attorney Nelson doing her due diligence on this investigation.”
Dennis said in text messages today that he and Brosche “have both publicly been victims of bullying by the ‘Curry machine’.”
“The complaint filed by Lenny Curry, Brian Hughes and Sam Mousa was an intimidation tactic in a failed attempt to strong-arm me into compliance with the administration, he said.
Dennis called the claims baseless.
“Any speculation my phone calls were anything but innocent are completely false,” he said. “Anna and I are friends and we have much more interesting things to discuss than city business.”