Former top City of Jacksonville lawyer pressed for answers over $800,000 in contracts

Jason Gabriel currently works for law firm he approved with city

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jason Gabriel was the most powerful man in Jacksonville you may have never heard of.

Gabriel served as Jacksonville’s chief general counsel for seven years, providing legal services for nearly all facets of local government including the Mayor’s Office, City Council, and the Sheriff, not to mention JEA and the Duval County School District.

In July, Gabriel resigned leaving his $230,000 job – one of the highest paying in the city – to take a position in the private sector, which isn’t unusual on the surface, but Action News Jax’s Ben Becker did some digging.

“Mr. Gabriel appears to have approved payment documents, payment requests for a law firm that he now works for,” says Tammi Bach, who is board certified by the Florida Bar in local government law and is the city attorney for Fernandina Beach.

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That private sector job where Gabriel now works is the Burr & Forman law firm in Jacksonville, where he is a partner and now a city lobbyist for three real estate development companies.

In an Action News Jax investigation, Becker uncovered that Gabriel as chief general counsel approved hiring Burr & Forman as outside counsel for two city legal entanglements – JEA’s legal fight with the Municipal Energy Authority of Georgia over Plant Vogtle and the Duval County School Board’s push for the then proposed half-cent sales tax.

Becker obtained the amended JEA engagement letter from September 2020, which says legal fees are “not to exceed amount of $576,000″ and the amended school board engagement letter from November 2019 that say fees are to “not to exceed total budget amount of $255,000.” Both signed and approved by Gabriel.

“If it was up to you, would you investigate?,” Becker asked Bach. “Yes, I would want to look into this some more,” responded Bach.

And here’s why: Section 602.412 of the Jacksonville ordinance regarding conflicts of interest and prohibited future employment.

It’s a non-compete clause for two years if a person had “a substantial and decision making role” regarding “the approval of financial submissions” if a “contract with the City or the independent agency had a value that exceeded $250,000.″

Here’s the full ordinance code:

Becker called Gabriel to get his side of the story and left a message but never heard back.

Becker also emailed both Gabriel’s personal and business accounts plus texted Gabriel, but still got no response.

So Becker went to Burr & Forman’s downtown Jacksonville office to try to ask Gabriel in person about his findings and while Becker waited in the lobby, Gabriel entered through the revolving door.

“Jason, hey Ben Becker with Action News Jax,” said Becker as he approached Gabriel. Hey Ben, how are you?” responded Gabriel.

Becker then pressed Gabriel for answers as building security gave chase and Gabriel kept walking.

“I’ve been trying to reach you about the ordinance that’s possibly a violation,” said Becker as Gabriel never broke stride. “I followed all the rules,” insisted Gabriel. “You followed all the rules?,” Becker questioned. “Yup,” Gabriel shot back.

“You signed off on two deals worth over $250,000 and you are supposed to take two years off before you can work for Burr & Forman,” as Becker persisted.

Gabriel didn’t answer Becker’s follow-up question and walked into the elevator as security asked Becker to leave.

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Becker did want to find out more about Gabriel’s claim that he “followed all the rules.”

Section 602.412 of the Jacksonville ordinance does allow someone to  ask for a waiver, if there is not an “ethical dilemma.”

Becker emailed Jacksonville’s Ethics Office, which possesses waivers, but director Kirby Oberdorfer responded:

“The Ethics Office does not have any records that are responsive to your request.”

“Why should people care?,” Becker asked Bach about any potential conflict of interest. “As public officials we are held to a higher standard,” said Bach. “The public is supposed to be able to trust public officials to be a good steward of public funds and not have personal benefits currently or in the future based upon their public employment.”

Action News Jax wants to emphasize that Gabriel has not broken any rules with the Florida Bar. Becker asked the ethics office if Gabriel is under investigation regarding the city law, but was told it can’t comment in any way, shape or form because of privacy laws. The office can only comment on its findings at the end of investigations.

If it is determined that someone violated the city ordinance, they could face a public reprimand and a fine of up to $500.