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JEA Gave No-Bid Job To Lobbyist With Ties To Then-CEO Zahn

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BILL BORTZFIELD / WJCT NEWS
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JEA's downtown headquarters building is pictured behind Jacksonville's City Hall.

A lobbyist with business ties to JEA’s then-CEO Aaron Zahn received a no-bid contract in July through a law firm helping the city-owned utility with its now-abandoned efforts to sell itself to a private entity, which was months before the utility directly hired the lobbyist through a competitive bidding process.

WJCT News partner The Florida Times-Union reported the lobbyist, Deno Hicks, said Monday that Herschel Vinyard, JEA’s chief administrative officer, hired his firm to lobby government officials in St. Johns and Nassau counties, which both had options to purchase JEA’s water rights in the counties before the utility could sell them to anyone else.

Hicks said Vinyard instructed his firm, the Southern Group, in July to work as a subcontractor with Foley & Lardner, a law firm hired by JEA. However, Hicks said his contract with the law firm was canceled in October after city attorneys told JEA they needed to directly hire the Southern Group through a competitive bidding process.

The Southern Group won a new contract in November, but the firm canceled it after the Times-Union revealed Hicks and Zahn co-owned a piece of undeveloped property on the Westside that they were trying to sell for nearly $2 million. Zahn didn’t disclose his relationship with Hicks to JEA’s ethics department, and Hicks said he didn’t formally disclose the relationship to JEA because he didn’t believe it was a conflict of interest.

An expanded version of this story is at Jacksonville.com.