Jury selection begins Thursday for former JEA execs Zahn & Wannemacher

Nearly two years after they were indicted, former JEA executives Aaron Zahn and Ryan Wannemacher are now one day away from the start of jury selection for their upcoming federal trial.

Zahn, the utility’s former CEO, and Wannemacher, his former chief financial officer, are charged with conspiracy and wire fraud in connection to a proposed bonus plan that prosecutors said could have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars if the utility were sold. They pleaded not guilty following their indictment in March 2022.

Wednesday afternoon, Zahn and Wannemacher and their attorneys, along with prosecutors, were in court for a pretrial hearing, concluding a process where prosecutors have been calling some of the witnesses that will testify at trial. The purpose is to determine whether any of their testimony was impacted by statements that Zahn and Wannemacher gave to city attorneys in January 2020. At the time, city attorneys were investigating whether Zahn could be fired with cause, and as the two were required to sit for the interviews, their statements can’t be used against them in a criminal case. Similar hearings were held over two days in January. During the hearings, attorneys are given the opportunity to ask witnesses about their exposure to those statements, and whether there was any effect on their testimony.

TIMELINE: The federal case against two former JEA executives

The brief testimony Wednesday came from a recently retired FBI computer scientist, and an attorney who had been with the city’s Office of General Counsel and assigned to JEA at the time of the proposed sale of the utility in 2019. The computer scientist testified about metadata present in two Excel spreadsheets that prosecutors will be introducing at trial, relating to calculations for the proposed bonus plan.

The attorney described her work with JEA, which began in April of 2019, just months before the JEA board began to look at different scenarios under the utility’s strategic planning process. Her testimony included recounting work on legal memos regarding the proposed bonus plan, and discussions with other attorneys and JEA leaders after the board approved the proposed plan.

Defense attorneys raised no questions over exposure to the protected statements with either witness.

The hearing also included discussion among the judge and attorneys over procedures during the trial.

Following a ruling by the judge in January, a separate jury will be picked for each defendant. One jury is scheduled to be chosen on Thursday, with the other jury being chosen on Friday. Opening statements are scheduled for Tuesday morning. The trial is expected to last about four weeks. If convicted on all charges, Zahn and Wannemacher face up to 25 years in federal prison.

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