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Connected groups are in line for millions in COVID money, with few questions asked

The Jacksonville City Council is set to allocate over $4 million in COVID relief with little oversight or transparency.

Dozens of nonprofit organizations, many with connections to city leaders, are in line for another $4.6 million in federal COVID relief money that City Council could allocate Tuesday with only limited oversight.

The list of organizations includes several whose leaders donated to City Council election campaigns, some with friends or relatives of council members and some who have worked with council members in the past.

A one-page application asked the organizations to answer only two questions to qualify for the money: How did the pandemic affect their organization? And how much money did they lose?

The application did not require the organizations to provide financial statements, and council members and organizations told WJCT there was no further auditing or oversight.

Each council member was allocated $242,105 to either allocate to one organization or split between two. The recipient list includes small local nonprofits, churches, large organizations based out of state and a for-profit newspaper company near Tallahassee.

A flawed process

District 11 Councilman Danny Becton picked Jacksonville School for Autism, where he is on the board, and The Foster Closet Group as the recipients to split his $242,105 share of the money. Both organizations are chaired by donors to Becton’s continuing campaign for property appraiser.

The donations were not large. Campaign finance records show the vice president of The Foster Closet donated $500 to Becton in May, and the founder of Jacksonville School for Autism donated $250 in July. Becton allocated $100,000 in COVID relief dollars to the School for Autism in September as well.

Asked why he chose those groups, Becton said the short time frame to find grant recipients and strict parameters around how to distribute the money led him toward organizations he already knew.

“I was doing what I was asked to do in a small time frame,” Becton said. “I’ll fully admit you deal with things you know because you can’t deal with things you don’t know.”

Finance Chair Ron Salem told fellow council members in an email Aug. 19 that they had three weeks to choose either one or two organizations for their $242,105. Salem did not immediately reply to a request for comment about why the city used this allocation strategy.

A for-profit corporation

Councilman Michael Boylan, the only council member to give a share of his funds to a for-profit corporation, said he didn’t have a say in the process except for hand-picking the group.

“We were instructed by [Salem] and the council president of both the timeline and how to apportion the funds,” Boylan said.

Boylan chose Havana Publishing Group, which owns local newspaper Mandarin NewsLine, for more than $121,000. The newspaper regularly features Q&A columns with Boylan and other public officials. Boylan said he chose the for-profit entity because of its local impact.

“There was only a single criteria that they offered: to be able to demonstrate significant impact by COVID situation," said Boylan, a former CEO of WJCT. "I overlaid on top of that my own criteria, that being the impact those organizations had on the constituents that I serve here in the Mandarin area.”

Professional relationships

Brenda Priestly Jackson, who holds the District 10 seat, distributed her allocation equally between a foundation tied to Edward Waters University and the I’m A Star Foundation.

In a candidate statement when she ran for election in 2019, Priestly Jackson said she had worked “as a special advisor and in-house counsel” to the president of what was then called Edward Waters College.

Priestly Jackson’s other choice, I’m A Star Foundation, was founded by and is currently headed by Betty Burney, who served on the Duval County School Board with Priestly Jackson from 2004 to 2010. Burney made $750 worth of contributions to Priestly Jackson’s 2012 campaign for clerk of court, and she along with former City Planning Director Calvin Burney each donated $50 to Priestly Jackson’s 2019 campaign for her current District 10 position.

In an email Monday, Priestly Jackson said she does not “have an actual or perceived conflict with either entity” despite confirming her previous work for Edward Waters College, the donations to her campaigns and her previous working relationship with Burney.

“I believe in the mission, service and work of each entity and am grateful to support both grantees,” she wrote.

Family connections

At least three organizations are receiving funds from two different council members, including the Jacksonville Historical Society — set to receive $213,158, almost as much as all of its revenue in 2019 ($253,090).

CEO Alan Bliss said he was not aware of any coordination between the two council members that granted him funds, Matt Carlucci and Randy DeFoor. Bliss has donated $750 to Carlucci’s elections and $500 to DeFoor’s council races, according to county campaign finance records. DeFoor's husband also sits on the board of the Jacksonville Historical Society.

“I asked every council member there is after catching wind of the grant funds,” Bliss said. “I remain absolutely confident that the purposes we propose are valuable to the community and we are good stewards.”

Each nonprofit has to sign a contract when its awarded the federal money saying it will keep records of their expenditures for the next five years and be ready for audits from the city.

Councilwoman DeFoor did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Councilman Carlucci, who is also a mayoral candidate, said there should be more council oversight before the council passes the list of proposed recipients.

“There’s no committee process, no time for the media or the people or the public to really see where the money's going before it's passed,” Carlucci said. “It is a mistake, I think we need to slow it down.”

Carlucci said he plans to ask the council to remove the emergency authorization for Tuesday's vote. Instead, he wants committees to take a closer look at the proposed recipients first to determine whether they deserve the federal COVID relief money.

Most of Carlucci's dollars are going to the Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. The rest is designated for the Historical Society for next year's bicentennial celebration, which has a price tag of $238,000, according to CEO Bliss.

Rory Diamond, District 13 councilman and Carlucci’s fellow Republican on the council, said Carlucci, a candidate for mayor, was “cheap(ening) this important issue for votes” by pushing against tomorrow’s emergency vote. Organizations have until only Sept. 22, 2022 to use all the funds once they get them.

Campaign contributions

District 3 Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman came under scrutiny for a $100,000 non-competitive grant that City Council awarded her nonprofit Clara White Mission last month. Now she has selected Jacksonville Health and Educational Resource Center and River Region Human Services as her two nonprofits to receive $140,000 and $102,105 respectively.

The CEO of the Health and Educational Resource Center, Lolita Hill, donated over $1,000 to Pittman’s unsuccessful campaign for the at-large Group 5 seat in 2015, while Hill's biography on the nonprofit’s website says she worked at River Region Human Services for over 28 years.

Attempts to reach Pittman on Monday afternoon were unsuccessful.

Council President Samuel Newby allocated part of his dollars toward an organization chaired by a campaign donor. Wayman Community Development Corp. is set to receive $121,053. Both the director and founder have donated to Newby’s council races over the past seven years. Neither Newby nor the Wayman Community Development Corporation immediately responded to requests for comment.

The latest round of money is in addition to the $1.9 million allocated to organizations in mid-September. That round was similarly distributed, with each council member given $100,000 to split between one to four organizations of their choosing.