JACKSONVILLE, Fla — The former leader of the Jacksonville Kids Hope Alliance may have misused his position by recommending an outside group donate to organizations led by his friends, according to an investigative report released Monday by City Hall’s inspector general.
The report also described an agency disrupted by an estranged sexual relationship by Joseph Peppers, the agency's former chief executive leader, and an unnamed member of the agency's senior leadership team who reported directly to Peppers.
In a separate report also released Monday, the inspector general determined Peppers' allegations that Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration pressured him to give preferential treatment to politically connected nonprofits were “unfounded.”
Investigators found that the Curry administration allowed Peppers to continue supervising the employee for months after learning about their consensual relationship after it had ended, even though the employee expressed serious objections to Kevin Gay, the chairman of the agency’s board, about continuing to work for Peppers upon his return from a personal leave of absence he took in April 2019.
“There was a complete lack of recognition of the traumatic experience I had just been through,” the employee told investigators about her April 2019 conversation with Gay, who soon after informed Curry officials about the relationship. “According to the former Senior Leadership Team Member, no one contacted her (other than Chairman Gay) or was concerned about her well-being in this situation."
The report concluded the city had no policies prohibiting consensual relationships between employees and their supervisors, although investigators said Peppers may have violated the city’s workplace violence prohibitions when he sent the employee pornographic images on a city-issued phone after they ended their relationship and “alluded” that he would reveal personal information to the employee’s child.
The report also suggested Peppers may have misused his position, which is a civil violation of Florida law, by encouraging the executive of a local organization to donate $100,000 to two nonprofits led by his friends after the executive asked him to recommend organizations that provide substance abuse treatment to adolescents. The executive approached Peppers for the recommendation at the suggestion of the Curry administration.
The organizations Peppers recommended didn’t provide substance abuse treatment to adolescents but provided social services to veterans. The organization didn’t donate to the organizations, according to the report.
Curry created the Kids Hope Alliance in 2018 by essentially rebranding its predecessor agency, the Jacksonville Journey. The organization oversees city-funded youth services and is aimed at preventing violence through preventative programs.
Peppers, an army veteran and former operations manager at Amazon, became CEO in 2018 after Curry appointed him to the agency’s board, a controversial decision because of his lack of experience and using his position on the agency's board to launch his candidacy to land its top job. He reported to Curry’s office.
Peppers was suspended with pay in August 2019 shortly after the Inspector General informed Curry’s office that Peppers was under investigation. Around the same time, Peppers accused Brian Hughes, then Curry’s chief of staff, and Sam Mousa, then Curry’s top administrator, of pressuring him to steer grant money to favored applicants. Mousa who has since retired, and Hughes, who now holds Mousa's former post, have denied those allegations.
Peppers resigned from his position in May.
In a letter to Inspector General Lisa Green, Peppers said he saw "no purpose" in responding to the report's findings, as the behavior described was either personal in nature or matters not prohibited by city policy.
In a written statement provided Monday, Peppers, a disabled veteran, said he took a leave of absence in 2019 to receive treatment for post-traumatic stress he was suffering stemming from his three tours of duty in Iraq. He said he and Gay believed he could return to the job in light of his treatment and the fact that the employee he was in a relationship was leaving the organization on her "own accord."
"I have made mistakes and apologize to my friends and family for putting them through some very difficult times. I was in a very dark place and made some poor decisions," Peppers wrote in the statement. "I am truly remorseful for the effect any of this had at Kids Hope Alliance."
Peppers’ allegations against Curry’s then top staffers were based on a September 2018 meeting he had with Hughes and Mousa, who he accused of pressuring him to give a hand-picked group of grant applicants preferential treatment.
Weeks after that meeting, Peppers awarded $50,000 in grants to six groups, several of which were churches or nonprofits led by Curry’s political supporters.
One of the groups was Bethel Baptist Church. As KHA was preparing to award a similar round of “micro-grants”, Peppers received a text message from Hughes in October 2018 that read, “Bethel gonna need micro.” Peppers said he interpreted the message as instructions to give a grant to Bethel Baptist Church, which is led by a pastor who has supported Curry's political campaigns.
Hughes denied his message was an attempt to improperly influence the grant-scoring process and said he was informing Peppers the church needed to submit an application before the upcoming deadline. Bethel didn’t end up applying for the grant.
Investigators concluded Peppers’ allegations were unfounded and noted that Bethel rescinded the $5,000 grant award it received in 2018 last September.
“Based on the testimony obtained and records reviewed, the allegation that Peppers was pressured by ... Hughes to provide preferential treatment to Bethel Baptist was unfounded,” according to the report.
Although it didn’t violate city policy, Peppers’ relationship with his employee was a source of tension within the agency, according to the report.
Mary Tobin, then the organization’s chief operating officer, told investigators that Peppers gave the employee preferential treatment and began steering more of her responsibilities to the employee while their relationship was ongoing.
After the employee and Peppers ended their relationship, the employee said Peppers stopped communicating with her at the office.
“Due to CEO Peppers’ behavior towards the Senior Leadership Team Member, the Senior Leadership Team Member realized she could no longer continue working at KHA. CEO Peppers’ actions toward her caused tremendous emotional stress on a daily basis, which created a hostile work environment,” according to the report.
Both Peppers and the employee informed Gay of the relationship in April 2019. Gay told investigators he promptly notified Mousa of the relationship. Mousa and Hughes told investigators they soon notified Curry. They all said they were previously unaware of the relationship.
Mousa told investigators that Hughes, Gay and he collectively decided to not “check in” with the employee in order to keep the matter “as quiet as possible” and avoid embarrassing the employee or Peppers.
Gay, who serves on the board as an unpaid volunteer, told investigators he asked Mousa to refer the incident to the city’s department of Employee Services. The director of that office said the Mayor’s office informed her of the relationship but didn’t request further assistance.
“The Director stated, “I knew [the Senior Leadership Team Member] was leaving, so in my mind the issue was going to be resolved … If she wasn’t leaving I would have had a conversation,” according to the report, which didn’t say when that conversation occurred.
At the time, the Mayor’s office was aware the employee had informed Peppers in January 2019 that she intended to leave the agency in August.
As Peppers was preparing to return to work from his leave of absence in June 2019, the employee told investigators that she asked Gay whether she could report directly to him for the duration of her time at the agency. She said Gay instructed her to never be in the same office as Peppers, although she continued to report to him when Peppers returned to work.
She left the agency in August 2019.
“She stated CEO Peppers’ 'emotional highs and lows were taking a toll' on KHA employees. Based on this, she realized that she could no longer continue working at KHA,” according to the report. “Although, she stated that she was not in fear of being injured by CEO Peppers nor was she being pressured by CEO Peppers, she stated, “I definitely felt like [CEO Peppers] was in control… of really every aspect of my life at that point… personal relationships, my professional life.”
The report also examined Peppers’ hiring of Tobin and his failure to disclose they were classmates at the U.S. Military Academy, as well as his failure to disclose relationships with other nonprofits that he recommended to receive funding from the agency. However, the report concedes that Peppers followed a special process outlined by the city when he hired Tobin and that there are no policies that required him to disclose his previous relationship with Tobin or the nonprofits.
“I am proud of the persons whom I hired or recommended for other positions, and stand by their skills, talents and effectiveness. I certainly do not apologize for hiring or recommending any person who is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point,” Peppers said in his response to investigators.