Weeks before scheduled trial, attorneys for former JEA execs again ask for a delay

Less than two weeks before their trial on federal conspiracy and wire fraud charges is scheduled to begin, attorneys for former JEA executives Aaron Zahn and Ryan Wannemacher are once again asking a judge to delay the start of the proceedings.

Zahn, a former CEO of the utility, and Wannemacher, his former chief financial officer, were indicted in March 2022 in connection with a proposed bonus plan that would have paid out millions of dollars to employees if the city-owned utility were sold. Both have pleaded not guilty.

The trial, which has been delayed several times previously, is currently slated to begin February 5. In late November, defense attorneys asked a judge to delay the trial by 60 days. At a hearing earlier this month, one of Zahn’s attorneys brought up the request again, saying they will take any time the court is willing to grant – and floating the idea of a 30-day delay. Monday night, that specific request was formalized in a new motion.

In the motion, defense attorneys cite the fact that several motions – including one to dismiss the indictment entirely – are still pending, arguing that impacts how they prepare for trial. They also state that resources that would have been devoted to preparing for trial, are now being diverted to prepare for two days of court hearings later this month, before the trial begins. Those hearings, which were set following a hearing last Wednesday, will involve calling some of the government’s trial witnesses, to determine the source of their testimony. At issue is whether the testimony is derived in any way from statements Zahn and Wannemacher gave to city attorneys in January 2020. Those statements, made during a city investigation into whether Zahn could be fired with cause, are covered by what are known as “Garrity protections,” meaning the information cannot be used in a criminal proceeding against the public employee who made the statement.

Garrity protections have been a long-running issue during this case. In May 2023, a federal judge conducted an eight-day hearing, known as a Kastigar hearing, where prosecutors had to prove that their indictment rests solely on evidence other than the protected statements and anything derived from them. In the fall, the federal magistrate judge who conducted the hearing found there was an independent basis for the facts, a finding that the judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Judge Brian J. Davis, adopted earlier this month. Following the ruling, defense attorneys argued that a similar examination needed to be conducted with the prosecution’s witnesses who did not testify during the Kastigar hearing, but would be testifying at trial. Most of those witnesses will now be called to the stand during two days of additional Kastigar hearings, on January 25 and 31.

In a response filed Tuesday, prosecutors opposed the request for a 30-day delay, arguing that the defense has had substantial time to prepare for the trial. In light of the resources being devoted to this month’s additional Kastigar hearings, prosecutors raised the possibility of delaying the trial slightly, but keeping the start within the February trial term, possibly on Feb. 12 or Feb. 20. Prosecutors state they’ve been working out logistics since November to ensure that approximately 35 witnesses are available in the month of February.

It will be up to a federal judge to make a ruling on the defense request.

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