Jury selection begins in trial of former JEA execs accused of conspiracy, wire fraud

Nearly two years after former JEA executives Aaron Zahn and Ryan Wannemacher were indicted, jury selection began Thursday 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.

There will be separate juries for each defendant, so the court is planning to pick one jury on Thursday and the other on Friday. The trial itself is scheduled to begin with opening statements on Tuesday. 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.

While they had planned to have 50 potential jurors on Thursday for the selection of Zahn’s jury, the judge started the day by informing attorneys that given the length of the trial, they were having some difficulty in identifying jurors who didn’t have hardships. His best estimate was that they would have around 45 potential jurors to start the selection process and 46 potential jurors were eventually brought in.

Once questioning began, the first question from the judge was whether any potential jurors knew anything about the case, either through personal knowledge, discussion with others, or reading or hearing something in news media or through social media. Nineteen of the 46 jurors indicated yes, and were then questioned individually in private by the judge and attorneys. Two of the 19 were questioned before a brief 10-minute recess just before noon.

Zahn and Wannemacher and their attorneys, along with prosecutors, were in court Wednesday afternoon for a final pretrial hearing, concluding a process where prosecutors have been calling some of the witnesses that will testify at trial.

The court has been trying to determine whether any of the testimony from the witnesses was impacted by statements that Zahn and Wannemacher gave to city attorneys in January 2020.

RELATED: Former JEA CEO said ‘the mayor’ backed $40M payout if city-owned utility was sold, attorney testifies

At the time, city attorneys were investigating whether Zahn could be fired with cause, and because 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 were allowed 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.

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