Ruling could come soon on potential delay of trial for former JEA execs

A federal judge said Thursday he will rule soon on a request to delay the upcoming trial of former JEA executives Aaron Zahn and Ryan Wannemacher.

Zahn, a former CEO of Jacksonville’s city-owned utility, and Wannemacher, his former chief financial officer, were indicted in March 2022 on charges of conspiracy and wire fraud, in connection with a proposed bonus plan that could have paid out millions of dollars if the utility were sold. Both have pleaded not guilty.

The trial has been delayed several times previously and is currently scheduled to start on February 5. In late November, defense attorneys asked for a 60-day delay. As the judge has not yet ruled on that request, this month, defense attorneys asked again for a delay, this time asking for an additional 30 days to prepare for trial.

Thursday afternoon, near the conclusion of a day-long hearing on other pretrial matters, Zahn defense attorney Eddie Suarez reiterated the request, saying they would be grateful for whatever amount of time the judge would be willing to grant. Part of their argument has been that time that would have been spent on trial preparation was instead used to prepare for additional hearings being today and next Wednesday – hearings that were just scheduled in recent weeks, following some defense concerns related to witnesses.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tysen Duva stated in court that prosecutors would be open to a delay of one to three weeks, which would still keep the start of the trial sometime in February. Duva also outlined logistical issues with some witnesses if the trial were delayed to a March start.

The bulk of Thursday’s hearing dealt with the ongoing question in the case of whether statements that Zahn and Wannemacher gave to city attorneys in January of 2020 were being used, either directly or indirectly, in support of the government’s case. At that time, the city and JEA were investigating whether Zahn could be fired with cause, and the two were compelled to sit for interviews with investigators. Because they were compelled interviews, they are protected by what are known as “Garrity rights,” which are extended to public employees during workplace investigations. Those rights protect the statements from being used against the employee in a criminal proceeding.

In May 2023, during an eight-day hearing known as a Kastigar hearing, prosecutors had to prove that their case rests solely on evidence other than the protected statements and anything derived from them. The magistrate judge who conducted the hearing found the prosecution had shown an independent basis for the facts alleged in the indictment, and this month, the district judge presiding over the case adopted the judge’s recommendations, allowing the case to continue forward.

After prosecutors filed their witness list for the trial in late December, defense attorneys raised objections, arguing that some witnesses for the trial had not testified during the initial Kastigar hearing, and that the court needed to determine whether any of their trial testimony was derived from the protected statements. That led to the judge setting two days of hearings where most of the trial witnesses who hadn’t testified in May would be questioned regarding their testimony.

During Thursday’s hearing, prosecutors called witnesses including current JEA CEO Jay Stowe, leaders of one of JEA’s employee unions, former city councilmember Matt Schellenberg, and others. The testimony and questioning examined what the witnesses will testify to at trial, and whether any of their testimony was derived from or impacted by Zahn and Wannemacher’s protected statements. Additional witnesses are scheduled to testify during a similar hearing next Wednesday.

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