Action News Jax Investigates: JEA leader scrutinized for possible conflict of interest

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — John Baker just completed his term as JEA Chairman of the Board, but there are questions if his business interests are overlapping with his civic interests.

Baker, who still sits on the board, agreed to sit down with Action News Jax Ben Becker and were joined by a JEA spokesperson and JEA’s Chief Legal Counsel from Jacksonville’s Office of General Counsel.

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In an Action News Jax investigation, Becker uncovered in the JEA 2021 year end audit, the utility acknowledged “purchases (of) limestone” from a company called “Vulcan Construction Materials” as well as “small amounts of granite and stone for repair of JEA access roads.” The audit goes on to say “the largest private shareholder of Vulcan is the Baker family, of which John D. Baker II, JEA Board Chairman, is a member.”

The total amount paid to Vulcan in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 with Baker as JEA chair, about $11.3 million -- but Baker claims he did not know of the deal reached between Vulcan and JEA before he joined the board.

“You weren’t aware where your money is?” Becker pressed Baker. “It’s just there?”

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“Correct,” responded Baker.

The JEA spokesperson watching the interview off-camera spoke up.

“He (Baker) answered that he wasn’t aware,” the spokesperson said.

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But Becker had more questions, including if Baker was aware of Jacksonville’s Charter pursuant to JEA and if there’s a conflict of interest “ … no member, officer or employee of JEA shall either directly or indirectly be a party to, or be in any manner interested in, any contract or agreement with JEA for any matter, cause or thing whatsoever in which such member shall have a financial interest … ”

“I’ve never heard of that provision until now,” Baker said. “The fact JEA buys rock from Vulcan doesn’t put any money in my pants.”

“Zero?” Becker asked.

“Zero,” Baker shot back.

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Maybe not Baker’s pants, but what about the pockets of FRP Holdings, where Baker is the CEO and Executive Chairman -- it’s a real estate company involved in mining.

Becker discovered that Vulcan paid FRP nearly approximately $9 million in royalties on a variety of projects in 2020 and 2021.

“Is that a conflict?” Becker pressed Baker again and after a long pause responded, “I’ll leave that to the lawyers.”

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Shortly later, JEA’s spokesperson interrupted the interview again and Becker persisted, “I’m just asking questions. Is it a conflict in your mind?”

“It’s not a conflict in my mind,” Baker said.

Becker obtained a copy of Baker’s COJ ethics office conflict of interest form that he was required to fill out prior to joining JEA.

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Question 2 business ownership states: “do you, your spouse, or your child own a business that is doing business with, or receiving funds from, the city of Jacksonville (including independent authorities)?” which includes JEA. Baker responded on the form “No”

“It clearly looks like a potential conflict of interest,” said George Candler, who served on Jacksonville’s ethics commission for seven years and is currently the Director of the Master’s program in public administration at UNF.

“The language of the Charter doesn’t leave much room for exceptions,” Candler said.

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A few days after the interview, Becker called JEA’s Chief Legal Counsel Regina Ross and asked if Baker’s business interests were reviewed by OGC and if a legal opinion was issued related to the Charter or the ethics disclosure. Becker was told in a statement “There’s been no written opinions on these matters and it’s unclear if there will be to date.”

“Do you think that was the appropriate answer based on this information I brought to you today?” Becker asked Baker about his ethics conflict of interest form where he answered no. “I would have certainly answered it differently if I would have known about it,” Baker said.

Baker has not been accused of any wrongdoing by any governmental agency. Baker was among seven recent JEA board appointees by Mayor Lenny Curry.

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