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Microgrant mess: Duval Democrats demand corruption probe into Lenny Curry

Grant process draws media, political fire.

A day after the Florida Times-Union spotlighted irregularities in the contract process for community grants, the Duval Democrats are calling for an investigation.

“The Duval County Democratic Party is calling for an independent multi-agency investigation by the City of Jacksonville Inspector General, State Attorney for Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, and U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida into the actions of Mayor Lenny Curry’s office during the city’s “Stop the Violence” initiative.”

“Specifically, we call for a conduct review of then officials Brian Hughes and Sam Mousa, and if they – or other members of the administration and the city’s Office of General Counsel – exerted unlawful pressure to give favored treatment to select organizations, helping them secure thousands of dollars in public grant funding,” asserted the party in a media release.

Curry’s office deferred comment on the media release from the local opposition party, one that did not run opposition to him in the March 2019 election.

That said, this is just the latest indication of second-term narrative challenges for the second-term Republican. Questions have emerged about a microgrant program at the Kids Hope Alliance

CEO Joe Peppers wrote in a memo last year that the Curry administration wanted a “political” process to award microgrants to preachers and non-profits.

Indeed, the process seemed transactional at the time, driven by high-profile murders and a hands-out group of conference room glad handlers.

More than half the Council showed up, as the realities of being a district Council member in Jacksonville includes cultivating relationships in the pastor community.

Peppers claimed that Mousa said the spend was “family talking… political,” and “designated applicants would get preferential treatment during the application process.”

Peppers, who wanted a more formalized process, also said he was told “not to bite the hand that feeds” by Lawsikia Hodges of the Office of General Counsel.

Allegedly at issue: “unlawful procurement fraud, abuses of executive power and possibly more unethical activity.”

Citing “troubling concerns that taxpayer-funded micro-grants could have been utilized by the administration for political pay-offs to quiet criticism of Mayor Lenny Curry during the upcoming election cycle,” a full-scale investigation is demanded.

Democrats want “the Inspector General, State Attorney, and U.S. Attorney explore the roles Hughes, Mousa, and the mayoral administration played in selecting micro-grant winners, and what role these preferred organizations played in the Curry re-election campaign.”

They “also demand the actions and responses of Hodges be reviewed for unethical misconduct by the Florida Bar’s Department of Lawyer Regulation.”

At least one U.S. Attorney has commented on city politics privately.

Tysen Duva, prosecutor in more than one federal corruption trial of a local politician over the years, has lauded the Times-Union reporters most closely associated with slamming the Mayor’s Office.

The Times-Union has been unfettered by a good relationship with the Mayor’s Office, and has been frozen out of comment. However, it is clear that critics of Suite 400 are finding ways to push narratives in the local paper that the Mayor’s Office is struggling to counter.

With discussions over the proposed school tax referendum and the future of public utility JEA having become fractious, this recovered history from 2018 is yet another complication for messaging.

Hughes denied on Wednesday that there had been any irregularities.

“At no time was Joe Peppers pressured to do anything unethical and any implication or inference of ‘undue influence’ or ‘preferential treatment’ in the procurement process is not factual. These grants in question were meant to be awarded faster than the typical process, but still follow legal procedures to the letter. Joe Peppers was a fairly new employee at the time of the email and not familiar with the procurement process. All of the grants in question were scored and awarded  appropriately. Again, there was never preferential treatment.”

Mousa, off staff but still a Mayoral consultant, likewise questioned Peppers’ read of events.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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