No fees in Sunshine Legislation probe of Jacksonville Metropolis Council, however questionable communication uncovered

State Legal professional Melissa Nelson is not going to file fees towards anybody on the Jacksonville Metropolis Council after closing a virtually yearlong investigation into potential violations of the Florida Sunshine Legislation, though investigators uncovered an alarming sample of some council members having a whole lot of personal conversations on the telephone.

The investigation started after a high member of Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration filed a criticism towards one of the crucial vocal critics of the mayor’s workplace, Councilman Garrett Dennis. As investigators appeared into the criticism, they discovered that Dennis and 5 different council members, together with mayoral candidate Anna Brosche, continuously spoke on the telephone with different council members, which they believed to be proof of one other potential violation of the Sunshine Legislation, which prohibits council members from discussing official enterprise with one another exterior public conferences.

All six council members denied to investigators any wrongdoing, and finally the investigation didn’t discover proof to prosecute anybody, in line with a report launched Monday by the State Legal professional’s Workplace.

Nonetheless, the report was hardly a vindication for the themes of the investigation, which additionally included Reginald Gaffney, Sam Newby and suspended Council members Katrina Brown and Reginald Brown, who’re each awaiting trial on federal fraud fees.

“Widespread sense dictates that Council members don’t spend 62 hours, 74 hours, and 38 hours on the telephone with different Council members discussing easy scheduling issues or irregular private issues,” in line with the report.

In February 2018, Curry’s chief administrative officer, Sam Mousa, met with investigators and shared a narrative he heard second-hand about what sounded to be a legally questionable assembly: Dennis had not too long ago approached Councilman John Crescimbeni and handed him a enterprise card with the names of council members handwritten on the again. Dennis stated the cardboard contained a listing of votes Crescimbeni would obtain if he had been to problem Councilman Aaron Bowman in that yr’s council president election, in line with the report.

Investigators had been unable to show Mousa’s allegation, as Crescimbeni advised them the alleged assembly by no means occurred.

The investigative report involves gentle somewhat greater than a month forward of the town’s March 19 election. Brosche and Curry are locked in a bitter struggle for the highest seat in Metropolis Corridor, and Brosche’s marketing campaign issued a press release accusing Curry’s marketing campaign of submitting the criticism to discredit her.

“When rumors began circulating that Anna was going to run for mayor, a member of Curry’s interior circle filed a criticism with none proof of wrongdoing,” stated Ryan Wiggins, a spokeswoman for Brosche’s marketing campaign. “This whole factor is simply one other taxpayer funded political stunt by the Curry administration.”

Brian Hughes, Curry’s chief of workers, stated the premise that legislation enforcement could be social gathering to politics was “absurd” and seeks to deflect from the intense questions raised within the report.

The Instances-Union obtained two stories ready by the State Legal professional’s Workplace, which give an in depth look into the investigation and its findings. The stories present:

• Throughout a 151-day interval between October 2017 and February 2018, Dennis spoke on the telephone with Brosche 450 occasions, and 1,771 occasions with Brosche’s govt assistant, Jeneen Sanders. He additionally exchanged 120 calls with suspended Councilwoman Katrina Brown. He spoke with Brosche for a complete of 62 hours, 261 hours with Sanders and 9 hours with Brown.

• Dennis and Brosche abruptly stopped speaking by telephone shortly after Mousa met with investigators in February 2018, though Dennis and Sanders continued talking.

Between March and Might 2018, Dennis and Sanders spent a complete of 58 hours on the telephone collectively and one other 81 hours between Might and September 2018.

• Katrina Brown additionally spent appreciable time on the telephone with different council members, talking with Reginald Brown for 247 hours, Gaffney for 74 hours, and Newby for 38 hours between October 2017 and July 2018, the identical month she and Reginald Brown had been suspended from the council by then-Gov. Rick Scott.

• Investigators may by no means show whether or not any of the council members engaged in unlawful discussions throughout the telephone calls — or whether or not Brosche and Dennis communicated via Sanders, which can be unlawful — proof that might be the linchpin to a profitable prosecution.

With out an admission, there was little investigators may do, as they’re prohibited from utilizing different investigative strategies, like search warrants and wiretaps, to research second-degree misdemeanors, like violations of the Sunshine Legislation.

• Investigators encountered a number of hindrances, together with inconsistent testimony from witnesses, reluctance by council members to reply questions and actions taken by the town’s workplace of normal counsel, like coordinating with council members previous to interviews and attending the interviews, which investigators stated had a “chilling impact.”

The State Legal professional’s Workplace thought-about issuing subpoenas for sworn statements from Bowman and Crescimbeni to search out out extra info. Nevertheless, the 2 council members agreed to offer extra interviews as a substitute.

• Whereas the investigation didn’t yield any prosecutions, the report paints an unflattering portrait of the fourth ground of Metropolis Corridor.

Within the months earlier than the 2018 council presidency election, bitter infighting had damaged out a few perceived effort by Dennis to sabotage Bowman’s bid. Council members privately mentioned this dynamic, although ethics officers inform council members yearly that the Sunshine Legislation applies to the choice of their management.

Bowman, who gained the council presidency election unchallenged, advised investigators about non-public conversations he had with a number of colleagues about their non-public conversations with Dennis, though Bowman initially refused to supply the names of who he spoke with.

He shared extra particulars in a second interview after investigators had been contemplating delivering him with a subpoena for a sworn assertion. He stated that Councilman Tommy Hazouri and Katrina Brown advised him that Dennis was making an attempt to persuade council members to not help his presidency bid. Bowman additionally stated he spoke with Newby and Gaffney, who advised him that whereas Dennis was disparaging Bowman, he by no means inspired them to not vote for Bowman.

It’s unclear why investigators didn’t contemplate these conversations to be violations of the Sunshine Legislation.

Because the acrimony brewed, Curry fanned the flames: After studying in regards to the alleged assembly between Crescimbeni and Dennis, Curry relayed the story to Bowman.

The enterprise card

Mousa discovered in regards to the alleged assembly between Crescimbeni and Dennis in February 2018 from Ali Korman Shelton, who on the time was a member of Curry’s administration. She resigned from her place in Might 2018.

In line with Mousa, Shelton stated that Crescimbeni advised her Dennis had approached him with the enterprise card with the names of council members who would vote for him to be the council president, and that Crescimbeni took the cardboard dwelling.

Mousa met with the investigators on the suggestion of the town’s ethics director, Carla Miller.

The report doesn’t say which names had been written on the enterprise playing cards. Crescimbeni didn’t problem Bowman in that yr’s presidency election.

The State Legal professional’s Workplace carried out witness interviews in September 2018, talking with Curry and his chief of workers, Brian Hughes. Curry advised investigators that Shelton knowledgeable him of the alleged assembly between Crescimbeni and Dennis, and that he then advised Bowman about it. Hughes stated that Shelton additionally shared the story with him and advised him “the cardboard existed, and it contained 4 names.”

Investigators believed these interviews had been “sturdy indicia of reliability” about Shelton’s story, however the investigation fell aside after Crescimbeni advised them the assembly by no means occurred.

Crescimbeni advised investigators in a number of interviews that the assembly by no means occurred, though he advised investigators he believed “such a scenario” occurred in 2017 when Brosche was elected council president. It’s not clear from the report how investigators dealt with that info.

“At greatest, our solely proof of this criticism consists of a previous inconsistent assertion by Crescimbeni to Shelton and a few conduct by Dennis that might are likely to corroborate efforts to maintain Bowman from changing into Council President,” in line with the report.

Shelton declined to remark.

When requested by the Instances-Union if he was truthful with investigators, Crescimbeni replied: “I did my greatest to inform the reality.”

Cellphone calls

After assembly with Mousa in January 2018, the Inspector Common’s workplace started investigating and subpoenaed Dennis’ telephone data for a five-month interval.

What they discovered satisfied the State Legal professional’s Workplace to take over the investigation and broaden its scope, which led them to the invention of Katrina Brown’s “substantial” communications with Reginald Brown, Gaffney and Newby.

Investigators didn’t assessment telephone data for every other council members, as a substitute selecting to restrict their inquiry into the unique criticism and anybody who appeared to have “out-of-the-ordinary contact” with one other council member.

In September, investigators met with council members, together with the themes of the investigation, and requested questions on their consciousness of any potential sunshine legislation violations and whether or not they communicated with their colleagues exterior of conferences. They purposely didn’t ask in regards to the telephone data or problem statements they knew had been inconsistent with the data, as they didn’t need to reveal who they had been investigating or what that they had discovered.

Brosche advised investigators that she has spoken with council members on the telephone about conferences occasions or their attendance, however by no means about council issues. She additionally stated she doesn’t recurrently contact council members for issues unrelated to council enterprise.

When investigators requested Dennis whether or not he was conscious of any communication between council members on the telephone, he stated that “all he did was play golf” and didn’t have time “for all of that,” in line with the report.

After their preliminary interviews, Dennis and Brosche employed attorneys and declined to fulfill for additional interviews.

Gaffney advised investigators that he didn’t contact every other council members for issues unrelated to council enterprise. Newby stated that he didn’t contact council members exterior of official conferences, besides to reply questions on assembly schedules.

On Monday, Gaffney insisted to a reporter that having conversations about non-business points, like soccer, is neither uncommon or nefarious.

Investigators didn’t try to interview Katrina Brown and Reginald Brown due to their pending federal legal fees. Nevertheless, they advised the U.S. Legal professional’s Workplace they that had a want to talk with them about Sunshine Legislation violations if both determined to cooperate with prosecutors. Neither has spoken with authorities, in line with the report.

Whereas investigators saved their playing cards shut when interviewing council members, they confronted Sanders with their findings from the telephone data. When requested to clarify the character of the 1,700 telephone calls she exchanged with Dennis, she stated that the 2 had been mates and by no means mentioned official enterprise. She additionally denied passing alongside info between Dennis and Brosche, which is against the law. She supplied no extra info throughout the interview.

Investigators later issued Sanders a subpoena for a sworn assertion. Sanders supplied the assertion throughout an interview in January on the State Legal professional’s workplace, though the session proved to be unfruitful.

“Regardless of the sworn assertion, an understanding of the quantity of contacts between Sanders and Dennis remains to be not clear,” in line with the report.

Unable to take the investigation any additional, investigators decided they couldn’t show past an inexpensive doubt that the council members violated the sunshine legislation.

“Our evaluation could be remiss, although, with out discussing using probably false or deceptive statements by Council Members as admissible consciousness-of-guilt proof,” in line with the report. “Council Members (sic) preliminary denials of getting substantial phone contact with different Council Members (sic) earlier than being confronted with the precise data gives some proof — maybe compelling proof — of information and intent.”

Christopher Hong: (904) 359-4272

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