August 28, 2020
COMMENTARY | By late November last year, attorneys at an outside law firm hired by JEA began to privately doubt whether utility executives could credibly defend a lucrative bonus plan that had ignited public outrage, with one lawyer speculating the board of directors would, in a private-sector context, lose a shareholder lawsuit alleging bad faith for approving the scheme.
JEA executives at the time were adamant that estimates released by the Jacksonville City Council Auditor showing the bonus plan could have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses were grossly exaggerated and based on bad information. Executives had shoehorned the bonus plan through a vote by the board of directors the previous July after providing documents at the time showing the plan would only cost $3.4 million. But JEA’s outside attorneys had figured out the plan could have resulted in an even greater payout: Nearly $1 billion.
“I advised them months ago that the (bonus plan) was a bad idea and would kill the whole deal,” one of the attorneys told his colleagues in a Nov. 23 email.
The conversations among attorneys at Foley & Lardner, a large and politically connected law firm with offices in Florida and across the country, were part of a recent batch of records JEA provided in response to a records request from the Times-Union. They provide remarkable insight into the origins of the controversial bonus plan, the concerns of some of the key people who crafted it and the lengths to which they worked to implement it despite numerous roadblocks in Florida law designed to prevent such payouts to public employees.