City Council members assail JEA committee as 'very, very scary precedent'
Five Jacksonville City Council members took issue Tuesday with a special committee investigating fellow member LeAnna Cumber in connection with the failed sale of JEA in 2019.
Council Members Randy DeFoor and Brenda Priestly Jackson were members of the Special Investigatory Committee on JEA Matters in 2020 and said Tuesday that the committee did its work properly then.
The committee was revived last week and is scheduled to meet Wednesday to consider whether Cumber — now a mayoral candidate — misled investigators at the time about her husband's role in the proposed sale. DeFoor and Priestly Jackson assailed the new action as inappropriate.
Joined by council members Matt Carlucci, Joyce Morgan and Michael Boylan, DeFoor called the latest investigation disconcerting and a "huge slippery slope" that could result in a misuse of power and taxpayer money.
"The authority of the City Council to investigate is limited to the power to legislate, which we did, and the City Council does not possess the power to make inquiry into the private affairs of an individual," said DeFoor, who is an attorney. "Anything beyond the authority of the City Council to do anything other than that, simply put, is an abuse of power and it does not properly reflect, nor should it be associated with, the good work done by the original committee on the privatization of the JEA."
Priestly Jackson, also an attorney, said she stands by the work of the 2020 committee and its results. She said it is important that the integrity and the autonomy of the City Council is maintained and that nothing undermines its credibility. She said she is "deeply troubled" by a revived committee that lacks the diversity of the original body.
"We were not engaged in a witch hunt with council members. I want to be very clear about that," she said. "This information has been out there for two years — over two years! So it begs the question why now?"
The special committee will convene at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in Jacksonville City Hall, revived by City Council President Terrence Freeman to investigate whether Cumber misled investigators. It also will investigate whether Cumber tried to use her official position to influence the process for personal gain, and it will propose legislation to "ensure that such deceptions, if any, do not impede the work of any future investigatory committee." Freeman said.
The council members appointed to the revived committee include Rory Diamond as chairman with Nick Howland as vice chair, plus Sam Newby and Boylan as the other members.
The 2020 committee originally investigated the pursuit to privatize JEA in an effort to ascertain the truth and restore the public’s confidence in city government, Freeman said in a news release Feb. 1. That committee interviewed dozens of witnesses under oath and reviewed millions of documents, also issuing subpoenas that were affirmed by the Council Rules Committee to people and to all the JEA bidders.
One of those bidders, JEA Public Power Partners, responded to a subpoena and stated that it considered hiring Cumber's husband but did not due to an actual or perceived conflict of interest.
The investigative committee later asked all City Council members to voluntarily disclose "whether you or your immediate family member had any interaction with any person or entity connected in any way with JEA or the city." Of the 19 council members, 17 complied.
Cumber handed in her statement in March 2021, after the committee had released its final report, the Florida Times-Union reported. The statement said that she had "no conflicts regarding JEA" and the sale process. The statement did not mention her husband, Husein, who was involved in the potential sale, Freeman said.
Hefting the full reports made by the committee, Priestly Jackson said the committee was charged with looking deeper into how the aborted JEA sale occurred and prevent any future actions like the attempted sale of the city's power utility. When the report was done in December 2020, the result was full of recommendations to make sure what happened with the aborted JEA sale never happens again.
"Most of those recommendations resulted in an amendment of Article 21, which relates to JEA," Priestly Jackson said. "It also resulted in a charter amendment on how those individuals on the JEA board are appointed, with four appointees from the City Council and three from the Mayor's Office."
That committee also asked all City Council members to submit disclosure of potential conflicts, then released them to the public to "identify future or potential conflicts that may exist," since that had never been done, she said.
"It was important to say that we followed the recommendations that were proffered to us in that process," Priestly Jackson said. "We wanted to make certain that we share that our work was concluded."
The big question now is: If there were not a mayor's race involving Cumber and JAX Chamber President Daniel Davis, among others, "would this special investigative committee been assembled?" Carlucci asked. He doesn't think it would have.
"Right now, I have no candidate I am supporting. But I do support fairness, and I support the institution of the City Council," Carlucci said. "I think that we have to be careful with such investigative authority that we are given by the charter. It is seldom used, but it is used when it's needed."
Carlucci also said the chairman and vice chairman of this committee "have direct ties to a mayoral campaign, and have made biased comments."
If there was any concern over why Cumber's disclosure form did not include her husband's relation with JEA Public Power Partners, Priestly Jackson said the right response should have been to ask her why it was excluded. And Priestly Jackson said she knew Husein Cumber was involved.
"That's beyond the scope of the charge that we had," Priestly Jackson said.
Wednesday's revived committee sets a "very, very scary precedent" that could see future City Councils investigating one of their own, DeFoor said.
"If there is any question as to a council person's behavior, this is not the right mechanism," DeFoor said, suggesting an ethics investigation or asking for help from the Attorney General's Office.
Less than three hours after DeFoor and Priestly Jackson spoke about their concerns, fellow Councilman Aaron Bowman, one of two members who did not submit a disclosure in 2020, emailed his to the news media.
In his cover letter, Bowman, a senior staff member at the Jax Chamber, said he never responded in 2020 because the City Council is "not trained or equipped to be an investigative body." He said everything it does is subject to open communication under Florida's sunshine laws, "which can severely hamper an investigation."
"Neither myself or any family member had any communication or financial interest with any entity investigating or participating in the [bidding] process," Bowman's disclosure reads in part. "That would include
business relationships, contractual relationships, employment or future employment, meetings, investments, strategies, etc."
The new disclosure also states that Bowman frequently meets with JEA board members and senior staff to discuss JEA issues, but he and his family were not "involved in any strategic planning of how to go about the process of selling or divesting JEA."
Following the release of the committee’s official report, two JEA executives, including former CEO Aaron Zahn, were indicted by a federal grand jury on fraud and conspiracy charges related to the failed sale.