A federal judge has denied a request from former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn to move his upcoming criminal trial from Jacksonville to Tampa.
Zahn was indicted on charges of conspiracy and wire fraud in March 2022, along with his former chief financial officer, Ryan Wannemacher. The two were charged in connection with a proposed bonus plan that could have paid out millions of dollars if the city-owned utility was sold during the Invitation to Negotiate (ITN) in 2019.
In November 2022, Zahn alone filed a motion, asking that the trial be moved to Tampa, another division within the federal court system’s Middle District of Florida.
Zahn’s attorneys argued he could not get a fair trial in Jacksonville, citing a social psychologist’s review of more than 600 news items about Zahn, dating back to 2018 when he was in the running to become the utility’s CEO. The psychologist’s review found that the pretrial publicity was “overwhelmingly negative” in how Zahn was portrayed and “undermined Zahn’s fair trial rights by helping to create a presumption of guilt.”
The review also points to the media coverage following the work of the City Council’s Special Investigative Committee in 2020, looking into the attempted sale of JEA.
Zahn’s attorneys also argued that any potential jurors in the Jacksonville area would have a potential monetary interest in the case, as it involves the utility providing electricity, water, and sewer throughout the city.
In a response to the motion, prosecutors rebutted that specific argument by pointing out that potential jurors for federal trials in Jacksonville are drawn from up 12 counties in the region – not just Duval County.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Brian J. Davis wrote that the media coverage and survey were not enough of a basis for Zahn and his attorneys to overcome the legal standard for moving a case due to pretrial publicity, known as the “presumptive prejudice standard.” Davis wrote that the questioning during the jury selection process will enable the court to select an impartial jury and allow attorneys to remove potential jurors from the pool.
A separate court filing entered Friday included questions proposed by prosecutors for the jury selection process, known as voir dire. Some of those questions sought to find out whether potential jurors knew who Zahn or Wannemacher were and gauge their knowledge of the 2019 ITN and proposed bonus plan.
Currently, Zahn and Wannemacher’s trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 5. Davis has not yet ruled on a November motion to delay the case again when defense attorneys asked for an additional 60 days to prepare for trial.
The judge has also not issued a final ruling on the question of whether prosecutors used protected statements by Zahn and Wannemacher in building their case. In late 2019 and early 2020, as the city and JEA tried to determine if Zahn could be fired with cause, he and Wannemacher were compelled to sit for interviews by city investigators. Those statements were subject to “Garrity rights,” which are protections given to public employees who are compelled to testify so that the information can’t be used against them in a criminal proceeding.
Following the indictment, defense attorneys asked for what’s called a “Kastigar” hearing, named after a 1972 Supreme Court decision. During that hearing, which was held in May of last year, prosecutors had to prove that their case rests solely on evidence other than the protected statements and anything derived from them. The federal magistrate judge who conducted that hearing issued two reports and recommendations last fall, finding the case was built without the use of those protected statements. Defense attorneys later filed objections to his findings, asking Davis to overrule the recommendations in his final ruling.
A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 17 to address some of the outstanding issues before trial.