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Former Kids Hope Alliance CEO Calls Mayor Curry's Administration 'Toxic'

Former Kids Hope Alliance CEO Joe Peppers
Will Dickey
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Former Kids Hope Alliance CEO Joe Peppers

Joe Peppers, the former head of the city's Kids Hope Alliance (KHA), is breaking his silence after resigning last year following a troubled tenure leading Jacksonville's flagship child welfare agency.

Peppers calls Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration "toxic" and has accused the Jacksonville mayor and his staff of seeking out "enablers" to execute what Peppers alleges is a corrupt and flawed agenda.

"As a Black man, and as a Democrat, I really sort of saw this as an opportunity to really help young Black and brown kids and poor kids, and I really thought that I could do the job," Peppers said during WJCT's First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross on Tuesday.

"But this administration looks for enablers that will push their agendas. In the beginning, I really assumed positive intent. And I shouldn't have, because at the end of the day, I was an enabler. And it was a toxic, toxic culture."

Peppers resigned in May of 2020 from his position as CEO of KHA after first being placed on administrative leave in August of 2019.

Brian Hughes, the city's chief administrative officer, put Peppers on leave, citing an investigation by the city's Inspector General's Office into workplace misconduct that was focused on Peppers.

Hughes made that decision a day after WJCT News partner The Florida Times-Union reported that Peppers authored an explosive memo accusing Hughes and another Curry official of exerting “undue influence” on him to steer grant money to preferred organizations.

Hughes has said he never instructed Peppers to do that.

The eventual report by the city’s inspector general (IG) stated that Peppers was having an intimate relationship with a senior leadership team member that went sour while they both worked at the city-funded child welfare agency. An audit also found that Peppers tried to funnel grant money to friends and business associates who may not have qualified for the grant.

Peppers, a military combat veteran who suffers from PTSD, acknowledged the improper personal relationship. But he disputes the rest of the findings in the  report.

"I sort of found [it] comical, to be honest with you. I remember when I first met the head of that IG office, and she described Jacksonville as 'The Wild Wild West.' And so I was a little alarmed. But I knew that they were going to smear me. I knew that they were going to talk about my personal life and my relationships. And so I wasn't surprised by that. But I almost thought it was laughable that they would suggest that I tried to steer grants to people, because that just was fundamentally not true."

"Quite frankly, you know, there were parts of my personal life that were out of control. But at the end of the day, they know exactly what they suggested. And I didn't make that up." 

Peppers has gone back to the private sector since leaving his KHA post, working for Amazon, the company the Curry administration originally recruited him from.

He said he believes the federal grand jury report into the failed attempt to privatize JEA will bolster his claims.

"I think that you're going to see a lot of that documented. I think it's going to be hard to prove because they do a good job of moving in the shadows, but you're going to see more proof of a toxic culture. And the hiring of people who don't have a lot of experience is sort of a way to get your own people in that will be loyal to you. And that's really what the [JEA] effort was around that. That was one of their main objectives, to sell JEA, largely because the city doesn't have enough money to do things like Lot J and so forth. So it was it was absolutely a talk, a conversation that was that was circulating amongst the administration. For sure, JEA was supposed to be sold in order to facilitate all these other things that they had in mind."

The full interview with Peppers can be heard on Tuesday’s First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross, which will encore at 8 p.m. on WJCT News 89.9.

Melissa Ross can be reached at mross@wjct.org, 904-358-6382 or on Twitter at @MelissainJax.

Melissa Ross joined WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. During her career as a television and radio news anchor and reporter, Melissa has won four regional Emmys for news and feature reporting.