State Attorney Melissa Nelson will not file charges against anyone on the Jacksonville City Council after closing a nearly yearlong investigation into potential violations of the Florida Sunshine Law, although investigators uncovered an alarming pattern of some council members having hundreds of private conversations on the phone.
The investigation began after a top member of Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration filed a complaint against one of the most vocal critics of the mayor’s office, Councilman Garrett Dennis. As investigators looked into the complaint, they found that Dennis and five other council members, including mayoral candidate Anna Brosche, frequently spoke on the phone with other council members, which they believed to be evidence of another potential violation of the Sunshine Law, which prohibits council members from discussing official business with each other outside public meetings.
All six council members denied to investigators any wrongdoing, and ultimately the investigation didn’t find evidence to prosecute anyone, according to a report released Monday by the State Attorney’s Office.
Still, the report was hardly a vindication for the subjects of the investigation, which also included Reginald Gaffney, Sam Newby and suspended Council members Katrina Brown and Reginald Brown, who are both awaiting trial on federal fraud charges.
“Common sense dictates that Council members do not spend 62 hours, 74 hours, and 38 hours on the phone with other Council members discussing simple scheduling matters or irregular personal matters,” according to the report.
In February 2018, Curry’s chief administrative officer, Sam Mousa, met with investigators and shared a story he heard second-hand about what sounded to be a legally questionable meeting: Dennis had recently approached Councilman John Crescimbeni and handed him a business card with the names of council members handwritten on the back. Dennis said the card contained a list of votes Crescimbeni would receive if he were to challenge Councilman Aaron Bowman in that year’s council president election, according to the report.
Investigators were unable to prove Mousa’s allegation, as Crescimbeni told them the alleged meeting never happened.
The investigative report comes to light a little more than a month ahead of the city’s March 19 election. Brosche and Curry are locked in a bitter fight for the top seat in City Hall, and Brosche’s campaign issued a statement accusing Curry’s campaign of filing the complaint to discredit her.
“When rumors started circulating that Anna was going to run for mayor, a member of Curry’s inner circle filed a complaint without any evidence of wrongdoing,” said Ryan Wiggins, a spokeswoman for Brosche’s campaign. “This entire thing is just another taxpayer funded political stunt by the Curry administration.”
Brian Hughes, Curry’s chief of staff, said the premise that law enforcement would be party to politics was “absurd” and seeks to deflect from the serious questions raised in the report.
The Times-Union obtained two reports prepared by the State Attorney’s Office, which provide a detailed look into the investigation and its findings. The reports show:
• During a 151-day period between October 2017 and February 2018, Dennis spoke on the phone with Brosche 450 times, and 1,771 times with Brosche’s executive assistant, Jeneen Sanders. He also exchanged 120 calls with suspended Councilwoman Katrina Brown. He spoke with Brosche for a total of 62 hours, 261 hours with Sanders and nine hours with Brown.
• Dennis and Brosche abruptly stopped communicating by phone shortly after Mousa met with investigators in February 2018, although Dennis and Sanders continued speaking.
Between March and May 2018, Dennis and Sanders spent a total of 58 hours on the phone together and another 81 hours between May and September 2018.
• Katrina Brown also spent considerable time on the phone with other council members, speaking with Reginald Brown for 247 hours, Gaffney for 74 hours, and Newby for 38 hours between October 2017 and July 2018, the same month she and Reginald Brown were suspended from the council by then-Gov. Rick Scott.
• Investigators could never prove whether any of the council members engaged in illegal discussions during the phone calls — or whether Brosche and Dennis communicated through Sanders, which is also illegal — evidence that would be the linchpin to a successful prosecution.
Without an admission, there was little investigators could do, as they are prohibited from using other investigative techniques, like search warrants and wiretaps, to investigate second-degree misdemeanors, like violations of the Sunshine Law.
• Investigators encountered several stumbling blocks, including inconsistent testimony from witnesses, reluctance by council members to answer questions and actions taken by the city’s office of general counsel, like coordinating with council members prior to interviews and attending the interviews, which investigators said had a “chilling effect.”
The State Attorney’s Office considered issuing subpoenas for sworn statements from Bowman and Crescimbeni to find out additional information. However, the two council members agreed to give additional interviews instead.
• While the investigation didn’t yield any prosecutions, the report paints an unflattering portrait of the fourth floor of City Hall.
In the months before the 2018 council presidency election, bitter infighting had broken out about a perceived effort by Dennis to sabotage Bowman’s bid. Council members privately discussed this dynamic, even though ethics officials tell council members every year that the Sunshine Law applies to the selection of their leadership.
Bowman, who won the council presidency election unchallenged, told investigators about private conversations he had with several colleagues about their private conversations with Dennis, although Bowman initially refused to provide the names of who he spoke with.
He shared more details in a second interview after investigators were considering delivering him with a subpoena for a sworn statement. He said that Councilman Tommy Hazouri and Katrina Brown told him that Dennis was trying to convince council members not to support his presidency bid. Bowman also said he spoke with Newby and Gaffney, who told him that while Dennis was disparaging Bowman, he never encouraged them to not vote for Bowman.
It’s unclear why investigators didn’t consider those conversations to be violations of the Sunshine Law.
As the acrimony brewed, Curry fanned the flames: After learning about the alleged meeting between Crescimbeni and Dennis, Curry relayed the story to Bowman.
The business card
Mousa learned about the alleged meeting between Crescimbeni and Dennis in February 2018 from Ali Korman Shelton, who at the time was a member of Curry’s administration. She resigned from her position in May 2018.
According to Mousa, Shelton said that Crescimbeni told her Dennis had approached him with the business card with the names of council members who would vote for him to be the council president, and that Crescimbeni took the card home.
Mousa met with the investigators at the suggestion of the city’s ethics director, Carla Miller.
The report doesn’t say which names were written on the business cards. Crescimbeni didn’t challenge Bowman in that year’s presidency election.
The State Attorney’s Office conducted witness interviews in September 2018, speaking with Curry and his chief of staff, Brian Hughes. Curry told investigators that Shelton informed him of the alleged meeting between Crescimbeni and Dennis, and that he then told Bowman about it. Hughes said that Shelton also shared the story with him and told him “the card existed, and it contained four names.”
Investigators believed those interviews were “strong indicia of reliability” about Shelton’s story, but the investigation fell apart after Crescimbeni told them the meeting never happened.
Crescimbeni told investigators in multiple interviews that the meeting never happened, although he told investigators he believed “such a situation” occurred in 2017 when Brosche was elected council president. It’s not clear from the report how investigators handled that information.
“At best, our only evidence of this complaint consists of a prior inconsistent statement by Crescimbeni to Shelton and some behavior by Dennis that would tend to corroborate efforts to keep Bowman from becoming Council President,” according to the report.
Shelton declined to comment.
When asked by the Times-Union if he was truthful with investigators, Crescimbeni replied: “I did my best to tell the truth.”
After meeting with Mousa in January 2018, the Inspector General’s office began investigating and subpoenaed Dennis’ phone records for a five-month period.
What they found convinced the State Attorney’s Office to take over the investigation and broaden its scope, which led them to the discovery of Katrina Brown’s “substantial” communications with Reginald Brown, Gaffney and Newby.
Investigators didn’t review phone records for any other council members, instead choosing to limit their inquiry into the original complaint and anyone who appeared to have “out-of-the-ordinary contact” with another council member.
In September, investigators met with council members, including the subjects of the investigation, and asked questions about their awareness of any potential sunshine law violations and whether they communicated with their colleagues outside of meetings. They purposely didn’t ask about the phone records or challenge statements they knew were inconsistent with the records, as they didn’t want to reveal who they were investigating or what they had found.
Brosche told investigators that she has spoken with council members on the phone about meetings times or their attendance, but never about council matters. She also said she doesn’t regularly contact council members for matters unrelated to council business.
When investigators asked Dennis whether he was aware of any communication between council members on the phone, he said that “all he did was play golf” and didn’t have time “for all of that,” according to the report.
After their initial interviews, Dennis and Brosche hired attorneys and declined to meet for further interviews.
Gaffney told investigators that he didn’t contact any other council members for matters unrelated to council business. Newby said that he didn’t contact council members outside of official meetings, except to answer questions about meeting schedules.
On Monday, Gaffney insisted to a reporter that having conversations about non-business issues, like football, is neither unusual or nefarious.
Investigators didn’t attempt to interview Katrina Brown and Reginald Brown because of their pending federal criminal charges. However, they told the U.S. Attorney’s Office they that had a desire to speak with them about Sunshine Law violations if either decided to cooperate with prosecutors. Neither has spoken with authorities, according to the report.
While investigators kept their cards close when interviewing council members, they confronted Sanders with their findings from the phone records. When asked to explain the nature of the 1,700 phone calls she exchanged with Dennis, she said that the two were friends and never discussed official business. She also denied passing along information between Dennis and Brosche, which is illegal. She provided no additional information during the interview.
Investigators later issued Sanders a subpoena for a sworn statement. Sanders provided the statement during an interview in January at the State Attorney’s office, although the session proved to be unfruitful.
“Despite the sworn statement, an understanding of the volume of contacts between Sanders and Dennis is still not clear,” according to the report.
Unable to take the investigation any further, investigators determined they couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the council members violated the sunshine law.
“Our analysis would be remiss, though, without discussing the use of potentially false or misleading statements by Council Members as admissible consciousness-of-guilt evidence,” according to the report. “Council Members (sic) initial denials of having substantial telephone contact with other Council Members (sic) before being confronted with the actual records provides some evidence — perhaps compelling evidence — of knowledge and intent.”
Christopher Hong: (904) 359-4272