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FEMA audit of Jacksonville’s post-Matthew spending looms

The city of Jacksonville is girding up for a looming late-April audit of post-Hurricane Matthew spending, much of which could be reimbursed by FEMA.

Reimbursement is contingent on a number of factors, according to a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Jacksonville CAO Sam Mousa.

FEMA requires a lot of detail. Among the asks: costs claimed and the precise accounting; payroll records; accounting and contracting procedures; insurance policies; and an itemized list of contracts.

The city had once estimated $100M in damage, though that estimate moved downward as more information was known.

FEMA would offer 90 percent reimbursement.

The unparalleled performance art of Corrine Brown

The next time I will see Corrine Brown — whom I still call “Congresswoman” — will either be inside a federal courtroom or walking to a federal courtroom.

I won’t speak to her. She won’t speak to me. For days, for weeks of trials.

That’s one of the rules of her trial regarding One Door for Education, her charity that prosecutors say was a slush fund.

I’ve had conversations with Corrine Brown that run the gamut.

____

In Baker County during her last campaign, a reflective conversation in which Brown painted a picture of herself as an advocate for her district (whatever the lines happened to be at the moment) against all odds.

She was in Grandma Corrine mode at that point, stumping for votes among a few dozen MacClennyites who seemed to regard her as more of a curiosity than a candidate.

After a debate in Jacksonville, one that she didn’t exactly win, Brown distinguished herself in a presser, posing a question: “What if I said I thought you was a pedophile? You’d think something was wrong with me.”

Those words, voiced on the debate stage, recurred during a post debate presser.

“If I said ‘young man, you a pedophile’, that’s a charge; because somebody makes an accusation against you doesn’t make you guilty.”

But then I saw her in a courtroom. She turned around and apologized for berating me in the press conference. It was as if the spectacle had never happened.

Again, great theater. Every last bit of it.

_____

And it appears that Corrine Brown had to get one last show in before things get real.

On Wednesday in a scorching hot Hemming Park, Corrine Brown dispensed ice cream sandwiches from the mobile House of Honey Drippers.

Brown drew the media for the stunt (a “thank you,” as she told one television outlet).

The press saw her in a gregarious mood, and allowed her to present sympathetically for the television audience.

This was notable precisely because it was Brown’s last media hit — perhaps ever, but at least until her fate is decided by a jury of people who have no cultural knowledge of Jacksonville.

Corrine Brown is as Jacksonville as Maxwell House breezes: Jacksonville in all of its glorious contradictions — a woman who has been condemned by Democrats, and feted by pragmatic Republicans.

She did business — big league. She built a political machine so strong that it took Susie Wiles and a 24-count indictment to bring down. And as her trial will show, lots of people kissed the ring — and will have to admit it under subpoena.

___

With every passing news cycle, Brown becomes a more sympathetic figure. as time dampens the luridness of the original charges.

It doesn’t hurt her that Rep. Al Lawson, after seven months of knowing he was going to represent the district, and five months after a pro forma general election, still hasn’t figured out Jacksonville.

Politics is a business that doesn’t make sense to many on the outside: expect the witness list in the trial that begins later this month to reflect that, with loads of people from both parties almost guaranteed to testify.

Can Corrine Brown beat the rap?

It all comes down to reasonable doubt.

And the threshold for that appears to be growing wider — at least in the eyes of her lawyer — as the trial approaches.

If you ignore the sheer weight of the indictment, you almost might buy into that theory yourself.

No plea deal: Corrine Brown gears up for epic late-April fraud trial

Prologue: Nine months ago, a 24 count federal indictment dropped.

It changed Jacksonville politics — forever.

Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, were named as co-defendants in a federal suit about One Door for Education.

One Door was a charity, marketed with Brown’s name and likeness, that did a great job bringing money in: $800,000 of it over four years earlier this decade.

The money, however, went elsewhere — while roughly $2,000 went for the purposes of helping underprivileged students achieve educational parity, the feds claim the vast majority of it financed the lifestyle of Rep. Brown and Simmons.

Simmons cut a plea deal in February, undermining Brown’s defense — as Simmons admitted culpability to just enough of the federal charges to implicate Brown, and as the Congresswoman’s former confidant is offering state evidence before his own sentencing.

However, Brown’s attorney (James Smith) asserts that Simmons changed his narrative, that Brown was taken advantage of by Simmons and One Door for Education head Carla Wiley, that she was not on the board of One Door, and that other factors, which will come out in trial, reveal that she was the target, not the agent, of a conspiracy to defraud.

That conspiracy, the defense will reveal, took advantage of an older woman, stretched to her limit by unique demands ranging from a far-flung district to fighting attempts to redraw that district.

As well, Simmons had his own issues: such as a rumored threatened indictment of his sister.

Brown will have what is being called a “fairly substantial” list of pols — local, state, and national — testifying on her behalf about the process that led them to donate to One Door.

Two members of Congress will testify on Brown’s behalf.

Brown now stands alone, ahead of a trial slated to start on Apr. 24. The prosecution case could take six to eight trial days, with the defense case beginning in the middle of the week of May 1.

From there, defense may require a week to make its own case

The court will hear corroboration of former co-defendants, and will dig deep into Brown’s income tax filings, with a forensic accountant in tow from the prosecution to go through those and the records of One Door for Education.

And Wednesday afternoon saw her final status conference ahead of that event.

And, as compared to the Reggie Fullwood trial earlier this year, which saw 14 counts reduced to two (with no prison time) in a plea deal, Brown will fight.

She has to maintain her innocence — and in doing so, she hopes to restore her reputation.

To that end, Brown will testify on her own behalf.

However, once the trial commences, she will not talk to the media — as per the judge’s direction.

“The one thing she respects is authority,” Smith told the press after the hearing.

____

No drama: The hearing in Jacksonville’s federal courthouse Wednesday afternoon, in the context of Brown telling reporters she was ready to go to trial, was necessarily anticlimactic.

Brown, wearing a suit that had letters on it that were oddly reminiscent of a word find puzzle, was resolute as she entered the courtroom after spending lunch hour in Hemming Park distributing free honey drippers on the unseasonably hot April day.

Presiding Judge Timothy Corrigan and Prosecutor A. Tysen Duva affirmed that there was nothing unusual to be discussed as the meeting began.

However, Brown’s lawyer requested a sidebar conversation — leading to the first (indeed only) bit of drama of the day.

After a five minute interval, proceedings resumed.

Whatever happened in the sidebar went unacknowledged.

And most of the hearing was quotidian housekeeping, a marked contrast to the pitched drama familiar to those following the case since last year, and to much of Rep. Brown’s career.

____

The Schedule: Jury selection begins Apr. 24 in Room 13-A, with two days expected to be the time frame.

Corrigan noted the “high-profile nature of the case will likely require individual questioning” of jurors. And jury selection could take longer.

The trial would kick off Apr. 26 at 9:30 a.m. in 10-D, stopping at 5:00 p.m. most days.

Apr. 14 would be the deadline for voir dire statements from the parties. Witness lists will be due on Apr. 14 also.

Subpoenas to elected officials, meanwhile, would require court orders, said Corrigan.

“I would urge you to get your subpoenas ready and get them served,” Corrigan declaimed.

Likewise, witnesses needing lawyers need to be brought to the court’s attention.

Corrigan noted that the case would be tried solely on “admissible evidence.”

“Whatever matters might be on people’s minds … they don’t play a role,” Corrigan said, including “opinions on the individuals.”

“I’m going to call on everybody to make sure we’re focused on the right things here,” Corrigan added.

The case, Corrigan emphasized, is to be tried in the courtroom — not the court of public opinion.

“Respect those boundaries,” Corrigan said, “and we will conduct a fair trial and one that’s worthy of respect.”

Media will be permitted electronic devices, in the spirit of an open and transparent process, Corrigan added.

___

Those in attendance can expect quirks.

A PowerPoint intro to the defense and redacted evidence from the prosecution among them.

As well, the idea of “interstate transfers,” so key to the Fullwood prosecution, will be brought up again — ironically, because of AOL servers, which are not in Florida.

As well, there will be a hard cap of 45 minutes on opening statements from both barristers.

Drumbeat for Enterprise Florida thumps in Jacksonville’s City Hall

A Wednesday meeting of the Jacksonville City Council Finance Committee moved the council one step closer to a resolution of support for the beleaguered state incentive program Enterprise Florida.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville’s Office of Economic Development offered its own take on Enterprise Florida, and incentive programs in general.

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The pro-Enterprise Florida resolution cleared the Rules Committee on Tuesday, with no resistance whatsoever, as a number of council members have become enthusiastic advocates for the program.

The same held true for Finance on Wednesday.

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The second piece of the discussion: a presentation from OED head Kirk Wendland, who has sounded the alarm call in recent weeks for incentives.

Wendland, noting that his department’s programs are transparent, said that he wished he had breaking news.

He did extend optimism, citing a lack of a companion bill in the Senate to the House bill that scuttled Enterprise Florida.

The Senate budgeted $80M for Enterprise Florida, $5M short of the governor’s budget.

“We’re sitting on two situations here that are pretty far apart,” Wendland said.

“Most knowledgeable people,” Wendland asserted, see the funding for EFI as “one of those last-minute buzzer-beater situations.”

“We’re in wait and see mode,” Wendland said.

___

Gov. Rick Scott has made multiple trips to the Jacksonville market in recent weeks pushing incentives and pushing against State Representatives who voted to scuttle them.

In terms of visibility for his efforts, they have paid off big league.

In terms of the ultimate viability of the incentive program, however, there are still open questions.

Citing controversy, Mike Anania withdraws from consideration for Jacksonville board

Controversial Jacksonville commission nominee Mike Anania had his day in the Jacksonville City Council Finance Committee Wednesday.

And that, it turns out, is the end of the road for his nomination.

Anania, originally nominated for the city’s TRUE Commission in January, saw his nomination stalled out in recent months, with the Rules Committee having voted to approve his bid three times already — but reconsidering every time.

The crux of the issue: a DEFCON 5 personality clash with Rules Committee Chairman Garrett Dennis, who managed to forestall a fourth and presumably final vote on Anania in the committee by running out the clock on Tuesday.

They worked out their disagreement, apparently.

In a much more muted tone than he’d used Tuesday, Dennis introduced Anania — who then said, while he was “honored and humbled” by the nomination, noted that his nomination has “become a contentious issue.”

“I’m going to pull my nomination,” Anania said.

Dennis indicated support for this move.

Councilman Bill Gulliford expressed distress that Anania wouldn’t move forward, extending hope that he would have a “future opportunity to serve.”

Councilman Sam Newby, calling Anania a “great guy,” offered similar blandishments.

But all voted for the withdrawal motion.

Poll: Jacksonville Jaguars fans back sports betting

Consider the source?

A poll from the American Gaming Association says Jacksonville Jaguars fans want to lift the federal ban on sports betting, relegating authority to the state.

From the release: “Morning Consult, on behalf of the American Gaming Association, conducted an online survey of 779 Jacksonville Jaguars fans from December 19, 2016 to January 4, 2017. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of +/- 4%.”

The findings: 54% say it’s time to lift the federal ban on sports betting; 57% say regulating and taxing sports betting would generate revenue for education and public safety programs; 46% say they would be more likely to watch a game if they place a bet on it.

A mere 17 percent of Jaguars fans don’t back legalized sports betting, according to the poll.

“Jaguars fans overwhelmingly recognize the federal ban on sports betting has failed. They support lifting the federal ban on sports betting because they believe a legalized, regulated market will generate vital tax revenue, increase fan interest in games and make betting safe for consumers,” said Geoff Freeman, AGA president.

 

Liberty Counsel, Jacksonville tangle over HRO judge

The city of Jacksonville filed a motion Monday for the disqualification of trial judge Adrian Soud in a court case challenging the city’s Human Rights Ordinance.

A day later, the Liberty Counsel retorted, filing its own motion impeaching the credibility of the city’s arguments.

The HRO was expanded to include the LGBT community on Feb. 14.

Soon thereafter, what the city calls an “instant lawsuit” was filed by the Liberty Counsel.

And that case challenging the expanded HRO was referred to Judge Soud, whose mother — a former Jacksonville City Council member — was among the most active opponents of the HRO, even holding a press conference on the steps of City Hall expressing opposition.

Ginger Soud and Liberty Counsel lawyer Roger Gannam are directors of a non-profit: the “Jacksonville Alliance,” a pressure group promoting the “application of traditional Christian values.”

Gannam was also presented as a “legal expert” warning against the HRO by Mrs. Soud.

The First Baptist Church opposed HRO expansion — and the Souds are prominent members, with the judge and his father holding trustee positions.

The city fears that Soud cannot, given his associations and his philosophical orientation, rule fairly on the case — thus meriting disqualification.

The Liberty Counsel has a different view, as its own motion indicated.

The city’s motion “identifies no disqualifying relationship between Judge Soud and any person in connection with the matter before the Court, which is the validity of the HRO based on the process of its adoption by the Jacksonville City Council.”

The city filing, claims the Liberty Counsel, “flounders about for rationale, ultimately betting on two relationships as ostensible grounds for disqualification … contortion and misrepresentation to make something out of nothing.”

“With respect to Judge Soud’s mother, the Motion falls far short of establishing any legally cognizable grounds for disqualification. The Motion shows no identifiable economic or legal interest of Ms. Soud that could be substantially affected by this case. The Motion does not contain a single allegation of involvement by Mrs. Soud with the Plaintiff, or in the filing or maintenance of the lawsuit, and does not contain any allegation that Mrs. Soud could receive or lose any remuneration, office, position, or other benefit depending on the outcome of the lawsuit,” the Liberty Counsel asserts.

As well, the Liberty Counsel asserts that allegations of a Ginger Soud/Roger Gannam axis are overblown: “they show only that Ginger Soud and the undersigned were both directors for a Christian nonprofit—not a business—and not more recently than 2014.”

The Liberty Counsel also questions the timeliness of the city’s objection, framing it as a desperate attempt to undermine a judge who should not be precluded from hearing the case.

 

‘Unauthorized’ DMV database deep dives by Duval Clerk of Courts’ employee

The Duval County Clerk of Courts is allowed to use the Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles database known as DAVID.

And a report from the Jacksonville City Council Auditor delineates that one of 15 employees with such access abused it.

The DAVID system houses confidential information of drivers and is supposed to be used for “research or confirmation purposes only.”

However, one employee ran afoul of regulations.

“We found evidence that an employee at Clerk of Courts appears to have misused the DAVID system on multiple occasions. This employee performed 25 searches on eight different individuals including themselves that appear to be unauthorized. These searches were of their spouse, siblings, a parent and others,” the auditor’s report asserted.

“We were unable to find any public records in the Duval County Clerk of Courts website (such as a traffic ticket, a misdemeanor or felony case connected to these individuals) that would justify these searches done by the employee as business related,” the report added.

The Clerk of Courts office reported the misuse to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and the employee’s access to the system was terminated. JSO deemed the infraction to be civil rather than criminal.

In the Jacksonville City Council Finance Committee Wednesday morning, Council Auditor Kirk Sherman noted “very strict limitations” on access imposed by the state, describing the illicit searches as “family-related.”

Another issue in the audit: an “employee who resigned on May 30, 2014 but whose access to the DAVID system was not removed until November 8, 2016. This employee had access to the database for 893 days after the employment was terminated at the Clerk of Courts.”

The Clerk of Courts recommended stronger internal controls in the office, run by Christian Right darling Ronnie Fussell — best known outside of Duval County for ending courthouse weddings a day before same-sex marriage became the law of the land.

Controversial board pick roils Jax City Council panel

The normally sedate Jacksonville City Council Rules committee was popping on Tuesday afternoon, with a controversial board appointment highlighting the agenda — with resistance from Democrats and party-line adherence from Republicans.

While it looked like the vote was going to go in favor of that nominee … a “hard stop” of the meeting at 3:15 allowed the Rules Chair to defer action for two weeks.

And so he did.

___

The backstory, and the committee process, are both genuinely compelling though.

Back in January, former Jacksonville City Council candidate Mike Anania seemed like a sure thing to be appointed to the Jacksonville “Taxation, Revenues, and Utilization of Expenditures” Commission.

However, last week’s Jacksonville City Council meeting saw Anania’s nomination referred back to committees, after Rules Committee Chair Garrett Dennis raised concerns about Anania’s comportment.

Dennis urged Anania to ask himself a question: “Is it worth it to continue this fight, to split the council? Or do I love Jacksonville and the process enough to step back, to say ‘I’m going to put my selfish ambitions to the side and step aside’.”

Anania, however, did not step aside — and he showed at the meeting with Karyn Morton, the chair of the Duval County Republican Party.

As the committee went through the rest of its agenda, Anania walked around the room, shaking hands and pacing at irregular intervals.

All of the tension and drama attendant to Anania seemed to be for nothing, however.

At least, for a moment.

____

The 5-2 vote that was passed last time Rules met happened again.

Then, a motion to reconsider was floated and passed … with some new information.

Chairman Dennis noted that when Anania was a CPAC Chair earlier in the decade, he ensured his wife was appointed to the TRUE Commission, which was a CPAC appointment.

Each CPAC appoints a TRUE commissioner — and the spot he seeks has been open for a year and a half.

Dennis contended that Anania kept the position open to “appoint himself as the TRUE Commission appointee.”

This, despite Anania leaving the CPAC Chair in Dec. 2016.

“The history of this applicant is not about Jacksonville; it’s about himself,” Dennis said, referring to Anania “promoting himself and his wife,” then leaving a vacant commission spot for himself.

Dennis vowed to attend the Finance Committee meeting Wednesday to reinforce his displeasure.

Council VP John Crescimbeni, a Democrat from Arlington, called Anania up to address the contention Dennis made.

“Why was that left vacant for so long, and why wasn’t somebody appointed,” Crescimbeni said, since the vacancy in Oct. 2015.

Anania said the good candidates had time constraints that precluded their joining the commission.

Both Crescimbeni and Anania concurred that the prolonged vacancy “looked funny.”

“I don’t like the look of this,” Crescimbeni said, regarding the apparent elisions in Anania’s story regarding time commitments and the difficulty to fill them.

____

Despite questions and concerns from the three committee Democrats, the four Republicans were harder to move.

Councilman Danny Becton, who objected to reconsidering the vote, cited vacancies on the committee.

“There’s only 10 members out of 18, and four of them are serving [expired terms],” Becton noted.

Becton vouched for Anania’s “good character,” noting that “Mike’s apologized for any miscommunication he’s had with members up here.”

Becton said he wished he had 12 Ananias on committees, noting that these are “just volunteer positions,” not “a seat on the council.”

“Forgiveness,” said Becton, was potentially a factor in the decision.

Becton also wondered about the wisdom of trying to “disband the city council’s oversight committee,” calling for the media to report on that.

Councilman Scott Wilson, while “concerned” about the lack of respect shown to committee members by Anania, opted to support Anania, given a long association.

“I realize he can be abrupt, but his heart is in the right place, even if his delivery is not,” Wilson said.

Councilman Jim Love also indicated that he’d support Anania, who he considers a friend.

And Councilman Greg Anderson, with some gravel in his voice, said “nobody deserves to be berated in this committee.”

____

Chairman Dennis’s position was unchanged despite the entreaties of Republicans.

“It’s a bad precedent if we start filling in people to fill in slots. If the TRUE Commission isn’t working, we should just sunset it,” Dennis said.

Dennis likened the Anania nomination to a movie with a bad trailer, one that people see anyway.

And Dennis questioned the timing of the extended vacancy, and the CPAC extending Anania’s name as the filler.

“Something’s not right, and I’m going to continue to beat this drum until Tuesday,” Dennis said.

Crescimbeni, seeing the vote count, proposed a reduced term to Dennis as a sort of probationary period for Anania.

“It’s the same trailer but the movie would be leaving the theater a little earlier,” Crescimbeni said.

Code dictates a three-year term, which would require the bill to be an ordinance, not a resolution.

As this was being discussed, the clock ran out on the vote.

So, for a fourth time, the committee will mull L’Affaire Anania in two weeks — on Apr. 18.

____

Beyond the Anania non-vote, the committee also approved resolutions in support of Enterprise Florida and moves on the state level to raise the age of tobacco purchases to 21.

However, there was no controversy on either item.

Lenny Curry to pension plan critics: ‘Let them chirp’

A case could be made that Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry has lost control of the pension reform narrative at the worst possible time.

In recent days, both the Florida Times-Union and FloridaPolitics.com have run stories questioning the lack of substantive detail provided by the mayor’s office regarding the pension reform package introduced last week to the Jacksonville City Council.

Curry has promised a transparent disclosure of numbers — and real financial savings — at a workshop with the Jacksonville City Council on Thursday.

At least one third-party analysis, meanwhile, says the increased contribution levels to retirement plans of new hires, from 12 percent in the 2015 pension reform agreement to 25 percent in the current iteration, will lead to $662M of extra costs from 2017 to 2031.

With that in mind, we asked the mayor on Tuesday about his confidence in the pension reform package.

Short version: he stood his ground against the critics, saying to “let them chirp.”

The long version is below.

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Curry, in describing the “numbers that will be laid out before the City Council on Thursday,” noted that what will be presented is a “sustainable solution pension reform that puts this to bed once and for all.”

“People,” said Curry, “have been debating this for years. Without the ability to move forward and get something done.”

“I put forth a reform plan that traveled a long road to get here, from the House and the Senate, the Governor. City Council passed a resolution that unanimously supported it. The voters said yes — 65 percent of them. We collectively bargained with the unions and we’re now here with a secure source of revenue, dedicated to solving this problem.”

That source of revenue: a half-cent sales tax extension that kicks in no later than 2030, when the Better Jacksonville Plan obligation is finally paid off, which will facilitate a goal of the mayor’s: “getting us out of the pension business.”

“This is a comprehensive solution. I’m confident we’re going to get this done. And let the critics keep chirping.”

_____

One of the caution flags flown by those chirping critics: what is seen as an overly optimistic read on anticipated inflow of money from the tax extension.

The Curry Administration expects a 4 percent increase per annum. External critics are more bearish.

“All these people who are criticizing this and debating this — what’s their source of revenue? Long before I got into office, they had the opportunity to present a solution,” Curry said.

“They either didn’t present it, didn’t know how to present it, didn’t get it done. So we’re here with a secure source of revenue — the half-penny — that has historically, except for the recession, grown at well over 5 percent.”

“A very important distinction between the Better Jacksonville Plan and this plan is, when they set their growth assumption rate, they borrowed a billion and a half dollars against it. They had to meet that growth rate to meet that obligation,” Curry said.

“Our sales tax growth rate: we’re not borrowing against it. So it’s adjusted every year in an actuarial analysis and the pension payments will reflect whatever the reality of the situation is,” Curry added.

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When asked about another criticism: that the city would be on the hook for a 25 percent annual contribution for new hires under the defined contribution plan, up from 12 percent in the 2015 pension reform deal, Curry likewise stood his ground.

“Right now, we spend 119 percent of retirement costs for every single person we hire,” Curry said. “Not even close to what we’re going to put into the defined contribution plans.”

“Not to mention that guaranteed pensions aren’t predictable. Certainly there’s actuarial analyses and whatnot that goes into it, but we are facing unfunded liabilities and crushing pension costs.”

“Defined contribution plans are cost certain. We know exactly where we’re headed, we can predict it, we can manage it. And we’ll solve the problem once and for all.”

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The Curry administration will make its case to the City Council on Thursday afternoon.

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