NextEra Energy and associates of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry coordinated, likely giving NextEra an advantage over other bidders for the purchase of city-owned utility JEA, according to a report released in early January by the Jacksonville City Council’s Special Investigatory Committee.

The report, which draws from months of sworn depositions and document productions, said the coordination between NextEra, its subsidiary Florida Power & Light (FPL), and the Curry administration, “suggest[ed] NextEra was the City’s expected purchaser”. One NextEra consultant, Tim Baker, refused to comply with a subpoena during the investigation, according to reporting from the Florida Times-Union.

The Times-Union has previously reported that NextEra planned to make charitable contributions to non-profit organizations with relationships to Jacksonville City Council members in a bid to curry favor with them. The utility also employed consultants with conflicts of interest in an attempt to win the bid for JEA.

NextEra’s political spending and lobbying caught the attention of South Carolina lawmakers, where the company is attempting to purchase another public utility, Santee Cooper. Two South Carolina state senators, one Republican and one Democrat, requested that NextEra provide lawmakers with a variety of documents pertaining to its lobbying and campaign contributions in the state related to its attempt to purchase Santee Cooper. State Senator Dick Harpootlian, in a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin, said that NextEra’s bid did not comply with state law due to the company’s failure to disclose JEA-related information, and said that the South Carolina Department of Administration could have rejected the company’s bid entirely. 

NextEra CEO Jim Robo responded by refusing to provide South Carolina lawmakers with “additional documentation at this time”.

NextEra received favorable treatment in Jacksonville, despite the veneer of an open bidding process

NextEra and FPL placed a web of consultants and lobbyists in order to provide the company with maximum insight into the decision making process at JEA and the City of Jacksonville. One consultant, Sam Mousa, was under contract with both FPL and the City of Jacksonville concurrently. Mousa, while on contract with FPL, helped draft a “super” budget for the City about how to spend proceeds from a JEA sale, according to the Times-Union. Another FPL consultant, Baker, received sensitive information not available to other bidders. 

The day after the City of Jacksonville issued its 2018 request for proposals seeking assistance to manage the privatization process, Baker, a political consultant and friend to Curry, inked a deal to consult with FPL. Baker has contributed at least $2,000 to Curry’s political campaigns or political action committees since the beginning of 2018, according to a review of campaign finance records.

Baker, while under contract with FPL, gave a presentation to JEA senior leadership “regarding regulatory and legislative issues with JEA’s strategic planning” process to put the utility up for sale. The day of the strategic planning process, Baker formed Conventus LLC with Sam Mousa, former Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Jacksonville. Conventus was later at the center of controversy over potentially improper gifts when it tried to pay for Curry’s travel to an Atlanta Braves game. Mousa, and his wife Sandra, have contributed $12,000 to Curry’s political efforts since the beginning of 2018, according to a review of campaign finance records.

The day before the JEA board voted to officially begin the bidding process – known as the “Invitation to Negotiate” or ITN – Baker, who was working for Curry but also under contract for FPL, received a confidential ratings agency presentation. The sensitive materials were not made public until the board meeting authorizing the ITN the following day. Even though Baker was still under contract with FPL at the time he received the confidential materials, he testified that he obtained the records on behalf of Curry. Before JEA requested bids on the privatization effort, the utility’s senior leadership was already referring to NextEra as the “clear buyer” for JEA.

When Baker refused to comply with a subpoena from the City of Jacksonville for his FPL-related documents, the City declined to force compliance in court, despite the evidence of the City Council’s investigative committee.

Ex-JEA CEO Aaron Zahn struggled to maintain his distance from FPL too. Zahn made a presentation to the JEA subcommittee of the Jacksonville Civic Council, a private club of CEOs and civic leaders that weighs in on policy issues, in which he invited multiple FPL-affiliated representatives, despite the Civic Council leadership asking Zahn not to. None of the FPL-affiliated representatives were members of the JEA subcommittee and one, Michael Munz of the Dalton Agency, repeatedly tried to get on the subcommittee.

In December 2019, JEA’s negotiation team, which included Curry Administration officials, accelerated the ITN timeline in an apparent attempt to blunt growing public criticism, despite concerns that it would cause non-NextEra bidders to drop out. JEA did not follow the ITN evaluation criteria, instead using alternative metrics not previously disclosed to bidders, when it determined that NextEra’s bid had the highest value. Curry’s office joined JEA’s negotiation team in pushing for an accelerated timeline expected to favor NextEra. 

Ultimately, however, the ITN was canceled on Christmas Eve 2019 and NextEra was unable to execute its bid for JEA.

Posted by Daniel Tait

Daniel Tait is a Research and Communication Manager for the Energy and Policy Institute.