Florida Times-Union by Nate Monroe
November 24, 2017
Judging by his public calendar for July 25, Mayor Lenny Curry had a quiet, routine day ahead of him at City Hall with nothing more remarkable than a private meeting scheduled.
The calendar gave no indication Curry was in fact traveling across the Midwest, from St. Louis to Baltimore, aboard a private jet owned by Shad Khan, the billionaire owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. There was no sign Curry was set to have lunch with executives at a major development firm later that day on the sixth floor of a renovated power plant on Baltimore’s renowned waterfront.
Curry was on the last leg of a discreet two-day, three-city trip with his top administrator at the behest of Khan and Jaguars President Mark Lamping, who are in negotiations with the city for a mega-development along the St. Johns River in downtown Jacksonville.
The mayor apparently did not want his trip to be public knowledge when he hopped on Khan’s private jet the day before, even though he intended to conduct official city business, as well as raise money for his standing political committee, Build Something That Lasts.
The low cost paid to Iguana is due to another quirk of state law that allows politicians to price a seat on a private plane as if they had flown in an economy-class seat on a commercial airline. Depending
How word leaked out about the trip would be the subject of a City Hall guessing game for days. The city acknowledged basic details of the trip — and Curry himself made public statements — only after the Florida Times-Union asked about it. City emails turned over in a records request later revealed a few more details about the trip.
Curry has traveled to other cities — in some cases internationally to London and Toronto — for official business trips, while using his committee to pick up the tab, according to public records and interviews. In October, Curry flew to Chicago, where Khan has a penthouse. Khan appeared to be a participant in that trip — which has never before been reported — but the exact purpose of the excursion, as well as who attended and how Curry got there, is unclear, as is the case in some of the mayor’s past official business travels that his political committee financed.
Much about the July trip is still not known, including who Curry met with while representing the city, what official business was conducted, and whether the mayor’s political fundraising efforts were successful with any prospective out-of-town donors. He reported no donations on campaign finance records originating from those cities in July.
. . .
THE ‘OPPOSITE OF TRANSPARENCY’
“It’s a big loophole,” said Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, a statewide government-watchdog group. “It’s the opposite in terms of transparency.”
Criticism over the practice has focused before on state officials, but it’s less common on a local level.
Indeed, it’s a break from recent local precedent, which dictated that taxpayers generally foot the bill for official travel to avoid even the appearance of ethical conflicts and that the expenses and purposes of trips should be well documented in the public record. Local law also requires public officials to choose the most economical means of travel and lodging available, in theory cutting down on the cost to taxpayers and limiting the comforts of elected office.
Build Something That Lasts was set up and is run by Curry’s political advisers, not Curry himself, so technically he retains no direct control over the committee. In practice, however, the committee belongs to him.
The July trip highlights a circuitous relationship between Curry, his committee and Khan.
. . .
Curry considers himself a reform mayor who championed hard-won changes to the old ways of doing business, often touting his interest in increased transparency and accountability for the massive consolidated government he oversees.
But Curry might be sidestepping that goal when it comes to his own office.
Asked if using a political committee undermines his oft-stated commitment to transparency, Curry’s office said: “Mayor Curry regularly confers with the Office of General Counsel and the Ethics Director for the City of Jacksonville. The result is that the mayor remains 100 percent compliant with disclosure laws and regulations. These reports and disclosures are available as a matter of public record. Mayor Curry will always follow the law.” [READ MORE]