JEA CEO Aaron Zahn didn’t disclose in writing to JEA’s ethics department that he co-owned a Westside property with Deno Hicks that they are trying to sell for nearly $2 million, according to a statement from a JEA official. Hicks’ firm recently received a lobbying contract from JEA.
JEA CEO Aaron Zahn didn’t disclose in writing to JEA’s ethics department that he co-owned a Westside property with a JEA lobbyist that they are trying to sell for nearly $2 million, according to a statement from a JEA official.
The Times-Union revealed Thursday that Zahn was listed in state records as the sole manager of Legacy Industries of Jax, LLC, an obscure company that owns an undeveloped 24-acre property on Lane Avenue. Deno Hicks, a lobbyist whose firm last month received a $120,000 contract from JEA, confirmed on Thursday that he and Zahn have been equal partners in the venture since they purchased the land in 2018.
Zahn has ignored repeated requests for an interview, although Legacy Industries and Hicks’ lobbying firm, The Southern Group of Florida, took steps to separate themselves from Zahn and JEA after the story was published.
On Thursday, Legacy Industries filed an amended report with the state removing Zahn as a manager of the company and listed Hicks in his place. On Friday, the Southern Group announced that it withdrew from its contract with JEA and that it will not seek any payment from the utility.
“While we believe our selection was objective and competitive, we do not believe the recent attention and perception adds value to our client or to the discussion about what’s next for JEA and its customers,” according to a statement provided by the company and attributed to Hicks.
JEA employees are required to disclose to their ethics department any secondary employment, which includes partnerships and directorships of companies. Under JEA’s policy, any changes to an employee’s secondary employment status must be made in an email within 30 days of the status changing.
The Times-Union requested any secondary employment disclosures Zahn has made since he became JEA’s interim CEO on April 18, 2018. A spokeswoman said on Friday that no such records existed.
Employees who fail to disclose secondary employment or violate JEA’s secondary employment policy can face disciplinary action that can be as severe as termination, according to the policy.
The city’s charter also prohibits JEA’s managing director, a title Zahn also holds, from having any outside employment or business.
Legacy Industries is preparing the Lane Avenue property as a site for an industrial warehouse, and a sales listing for the property states the company is willing to build to suit, which typically indicates an owner’s willingness to construct a building to a buyer’s exact specifications.
Legacy Industries purchased the property for $300,000 from CSX in April 2018, days after Zahn stepped down from the JEA board of directors to become the interim CEO.
The episode has left JEA with one less lobbying firm to assist in its beleaguered efforts to sell JEA and is the latest controversy to haunt JEA under Zahn’s leadership.
As city and civic leaders demand JEA abandon its efforts to sell the city-owned utility, Mayor Lenny Curry on Thursday called for JEA officials to conclude their negotiations with potential buyers, which are being handled by officials from his administration, by the end of January. JEA has said it expected to conclude those talks by the end of February.
Curry also outlined a series of steps that would take decision-making responsibility over a potential sale away from JEA and give it to City Council members, who have expressed outrage and frustration over JEA’s handling of the sales talks and a number of missteps by its leadership.
On Monday, JEA officials will appear at a City Council fact-finding hearing examining a controversial bonus plan that has become a crisis for Zahn and the utility. It’s unclear whether Zahn will appear at the hearing.
JEA’s fiercest critics on the City Council have called for Zahn to resign, and revelations that he had a business relationship with a lobbyist working for the utility could serve as fuel to their demands.
“I wish I could say I was surprised, but nothing surprises me anymore,” said Councilwoman Randy DeFoor in response to the Times-Union’s reporting. “I think we need to determine whether it complied with the legal requirements of the secondary employment policy, and I think we need to figure out whether any services were being planned for this property. If that was the case, there would have been a tremendous illegal value to that partnership.”
The Times-Union asked the Mayor’s office whether Curry, who appointed Zahn to JEA’s board in 2018 and has voiced support for him since he became the CEO, still had confidence in Zahn’s leadership.
A spokeswoman for Curry said she couldn’t reach him on Friday to ask him the question.
Christopher Hong: (904) 359-4272