In a July 20 interview with an attorney from the Jacksonville City Council Special Investigative Committee on JEA Matters, a senior staffer for Mayor Lenny Curry denied charges of a conspiracy to sell the utility.
Chief administrator Brian Hughes resisted the proposition that the plan to sell was a central obsession of the Curry administration, a question at the heart of local politics.
Hughes became Chief of Staff in early 2018, weeks after former JEA Board member and Curry donor Tom Petway said that the utility should explore privatization.
“He never used the word sell,” Hughes said, adding that “conversation was privatization,” which could include a “concession agreement” rather than a transfer of assets.
“A public asset can be privatized by … the management and function being rented out essentially,” Hughes said, with the asset remaining owned.
Despite a strong belief that the process was slotted to Florida Power and Light, with JEA’s service area the “hole in the doughnut,” Hughes claimed that wasn’t in the cards.
“There were lots of consultants … corporate entities that rang familiar,” Hughes said, but he said he knew nothing of the bidders beyond “public reporting and public documents.”
The discussion of privatization was fairly routine even in the early years of the Curry administration, “with meetings about parking garages, an airport concession, a variety of privatization.”
Hughes also discussed a rosy valuation study from “Public Financial Management” released in February 2018 that offered what the authors called a “new answer to the old question of whether the city should sell JEA,” with estimated proceeds between $4.1 and $7.6 billion.
“Privatization and potential sale of assets is an ongoing policy discussion that is allowed by the charter and perfectly acceptable,” Hughes said, regarding that exploration.
Hughes also touched on a meeting of the City Council to discuss that document, which he said was an attempt to ensure everyone could hear the information at the same time, without having to rely on “the media’s impression of the third hour of a JEA Board meeting.”
“The Mayor believes that if you can demonstrate that there is a more efficient, less costly way for people to get access to a service or thing that government does … you should explore that,” Hughes said.
Hughes also discussed a meeting with Greg Black of Gunster, which represented Florida Power and Light, saying he didn’t know about that representation at the time.
“It was simply a breakfast with a buddy in a new job,” Hughes said, noting their longstanding Tallahassee friendship and that the meeting was not an exclusive tete a tete.
Likewise, Hughes denied that there was ever anything like a trip to FPL’s headquarters to meet with CEO Eric Silagy.
Hughes also discounted his or the Curry campaign’s relationship with former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn, who spearheaded the privatization push in his tenure, saying that he didn’t know the donors.
“I spent the money. I didn’t count it,” Hughes said.
However, when asked to quantify the conversations with Curry about Zahn going to the JEA Board, Hughes claimed those were privileged communications.
Hughes did say, however, that it was “not surprising” that a “young business guy, aggressive” like Zahn would want to sell the utility. And that the decision to make Zahn CEO was ultimately one of the board itself.
With a federal investigation paralleling the local inquiry, members of the Curry inner circle continue to contend that despite the optics and the press coverage, whatever scandal may exist doesn’t extend into their suite.
With more testimonies to come, expect variations of the same argument to be advanced by those both on the inside and outside of the administration.