Nate Monroe: Ex-JEA CEO Aaron Zahn wants vindication, not just an acquittal

Ex-JEA CEO Aaron Zahn, center, leaves Federal Court with his wife as Action JAX Reporter Ben Becker asks questions after a federal grand jury indictment hearing Tuesday, March 8, 2022 in Jacksonville.
Ex-JEA CEO Aaron Zahn, center, leaves Federal Court with his wife as Action JAX Reporter Ben Becker asks questions after a federal grand jury indictment hearing Tuesday, March 8, 2022 in Jacksonville.

COMMENTARY | In January 2015, Aaron Zahn had a mess to clean up.

"I get the sense you have a perception ... I'd like to change," Zahn wrote a high-ranking JEA official, according to a batch of utility emails I obtained years ago. "This is probably the result of my company's historical missteps."

Years before he'd arrived at JEA, and long before he'd become a household name throughout Jacksonville, Zahn was courting officials at the city-owned utility for potential work. He was CEO of a private wastewater technology firm at the time, and he seemed concerned about his company's reputation within JEA, a potential customer of his company's proprietary wastewater-cleaning process.

Naturally, while investigating Zahn's background after his abrupt ascension as JEA's interim CEO in spring 2018, this email — referencing vague problems at the company he had run — raised some obvious questions about the leadership capabilities of the man who'd just ousted a far more experienced competitor to run Jacksonville's most important government agency. Zahn did not hesitate in his response: "The CEO before me used to use politics to try and get business," he said during an interview in what was then his new JEA office. "He would try and use politicians ... what I actually decided to do was win business on merit."

I recall feeling a bit taken aback at how quickly Zahn was willing to throw his predecessor at that private firm under the bus. Was this odd behavior for a chief executive? And there was the apparent lack of introspection: Zahn's very hiring at JEA was viewed as one not based on merit but politics, namely that he had the backing of then-Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry.

Over time, I came to understand this was simply part of a pattern of behavior when Zahn found himself under pressure.

In 2019, now firmly helming JEA, Zahn peddled a theory that JEA's public-power business model was headed for financial ruin, thus justifying the need to sell the agency to a private company. The Florida Municipal Power Agency took issue with some of his doom-and-gloom projections — eventually, so would criminal investigators — and pushed back in a presentation to its own board, prompting a furious, personal response from Zahn's JEA. "The FMPA presentation and position is nothing more than an ill-informed and misguided attempt to protect the CEO of FMPA from admitting his organization is poorly situated to deal with the indisputable trends of our industry."

Zahn accused the FMPA of creating an "overly optimistic" picture of the industry, a clever inversion of the very thing Zahn himself was accused of doing when justifying selling JEA — taking the worst-case industry predictions and making them sound like the mainstream view.

In 2020, after JEA's board of directors fired Zahn for cause, prompted by the controversies and scandals that had accumulated during his privatization campaign, the utility sued Zahn for fraud, calling him the "ringleader of perhaps the largest fraud in Jacksonville's history." Zahn's response was apoplectic: His attorney asked the judge overseeing the case to impose sanctions on the attorneys representing JEA — an extreme response in its own right — and called JEA's case "wildly and demonstrably false," based on "revisionist history," an effort to "scapegoat" and "villainize Zahn to exact political and public benefit," and "embellished with fiction."

Over time, Zahn apparently came to believe dark forces were conspiring against him. “You guys just want me dead. I get it,” Zahn told his former chief operating officer, Melissa Dykes, in a text message in February 2020 before she, too, was terminated by JEA's board. “Please stop bringing my family into this mess and I’ll leave.”

When I asked Zahn's lawyer at the time to clarify that text, which we'd received in a batch of records in response to a public-records request, his statement echoed Zahn's conspiratorial bent: His attorney said Zahn's “wife and family have been wrongfully targeted by the Times-Union and some malicious members of the community," without providing any examples. This was and remains a loony accusation. No media outlet has "targeted" his family, much less discussed his family members at all beyond a few cursory notations.

He was covered as a public official and appropriately scrutinized as such, but for Zahn, that very routine part of our democratic process amounted to a kind of grievous personal insult.

The passage of time and years under criminal indictment have not dulled these impulses.

Zahn's opening statement Wednesday, delivered by one of his defense attorneys, Eddie Suarez, during the beginning of his trial on conspiracy and wire fraud charges, was characteristically categorical, defiant, and at times, conspiratorial. He is a "young, visionary leader," a "responsible CEO" who is guilty of nothing more than trying to change the tired ways of a static government bureaucracy, and for that sin, Suarez told the jury, Zahn became the victim of "good old fashioned politics."

Suarez didn't give an inch on the allegations against Zahn: that he and his co-defendant, former JEA CFO Ryan Wannemacher, tried to enrich themselves by pocketing millions of dollars in profit off the top of a sale of JEA to a private power company. That story, Suarez said, is a "fantasy of the government."

Wannemacher's attorney, Jim Felman, of course offered a forceful defense of his client, but he also made a smart strategic acknowledgement to the jury: "you may not be happy with everything Mr. Wannemacher did" (indeed, they probably won't).

Even that small modesty was completely absent in Zahn's unequivocal defense, which described a world in which Zahn brought nothing but good ideas to JEA.

Outside the federal courtroom, where Zahn's exploits are well known, this breathtaking argument would be met with fury — or humor. His attorney peddled a Bizzaro World version of events that would rankle anyone with even passing familiarity with the overall story. He cast employees of the City Council Auditor's Office — among the sharpest, most trusted, apolitical figures in city government — as bad-faith operators who tried to embarrass Zahn for political reasons. In reality, they'd simply decoded the math behind a bonus plan that was set to potentially payout millions, harkening the beginning of the end of Zahn's time at JEA.

It's hard for me to know if Zahn actually believes that unfounded accusation, but I am confident Zahn believes he is being persecuted by nefarious forces. He seems to have believed it for years.

This time, Zahn isn't facing down JEA employees, who never warmed to him and remain incensed at his legacy; or city officials, who came to distrust him; or the well-informed public, which read about Zahn's JEA controversies for years as journalists, lawyers and criminal investigators unspooled all there is to know about his tumultuous tenure. By design, Zahn only has to convince a group of jurors who possess little to no knowledge about him, about the privatization effort and potentially about JEA itself. And he doesn't have to persuade them he is a "visionary" CEO or a victim: he just needs the jurors, or even one juror, to find that the government didn't prove its complex case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Those flourishes in Suarez's opening statement sounded like details intended as much for the jurors as for Zahn himself, who is perhaps not just hoping for an acquittal but something akin to vindication.

Zahn "saw himself as a visionary leader of a utility of the future, and he believed that," a former JEA employee once said in an under-oath interview about her time working with him. "I thought and think that he was pure, and at least what he believed in his head is that he was the guy to lead JEA to the promised land, whatever that was going to be."

Nate Monroe is a metro columnist whose work regularly appears every Thursday and Sunday. Follow him on Twitter @NateMonroeTU.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Nate Monroe: Ex-JEA CEO Aaron Zahn wants vindication, not just acquittal