Investigates: Mayor’s office defends Gabriel hire following ethics probe

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — The Office of Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan is defending its decision to hire the city’s former top lawyer to lead the search for a successor.

It follows a previous investigation by Action News Jax Ben Becker which played a key role in a ten-month long ethics probe of ex-general counsel Jason Gabriel that was eventually dismissed by the Jacksonville Ethics Commission. Now, there are new questions about the effectiveness of the Commission.

Deegan unveiled her executive team in June which featured many familiar faces including Gabriel, and if the name sounds familiar it should.


Becker first tried to chase down Gabriel in November 2021, months after Gabriel had resigned to become a partner with prominent local law firm Burr & Forman. At the time, Gabriel maintained he followed all the rules.

Becker had learned that in 2019, Gabriel signed off on more than $800,000 in contracts with the law firm while he was general counsel - less than two years before leaving the city. It raised the possibility of a violation of the City of Jacksonville’s non-compete clause.

[DOWNLOAD: Free Action News Jax app for alerts as news breaks]

Becker recently caught up with Gabriel at the first meeting of the committee that will choose the next general counsel after he declined an interview request. Becker asked Gabriel about the ethics inquiry and a letter Gabriel wrote to the Ethics Commission defending himself and calling out Becker’s reporting saying it was “uninformed” and “anti-climactic journalism.”

Becker: “Why did you say that?”

Gabriel: “Because that’s what it was.”

Becker: “That’s not very nice.”

Gabriel: “It’s not nice for you to keep hounding me about things that aren’t of any consequence.”

But at least one member of the Ethics Commission thought it was of consequence in a closed-door meeting. Becker obtained audio recordings through a public records request.

“I think these are serious allegations,” said a member of the commission who along with others wrestled with making a decision.

They tried to figure out if Gabriel had “a substantial and decision-making role” regarding the Burr & Forman contracts or just delegated his responsibilities and rubber stamped the agreements.

“If I thought that there was something wrong here you know what I would have done? I wouldn’t have left,” said Gabriel in an audio recording in front of the Ethics Commission which eventually decided to dismiss the case against Gabriel, saying it was “not in the public interest to proceed further.”

Becker asked the Ethics Office how many times the Ethics Commission has made a finding of probable cause or a violation of the ethics code since 2007 which is when it started accepting and ruling on complaints.

The answer? Never. Zero out of 150 complaints and the maximum fine it could issue is just $500.

“Yes, it effectively toothless. Gums to death the person if they did something wrong,” said George Candler who served on the Ethics Commission from 2013-2020 and is now the Director of the Public Administration program at the University of North Florida. He views the Gabriel investigation different than his former colleagues.

“For me this whole case is about accountability,” said Candler.

As for Gabriel, he stands behind his actions.

Becker: “You don’t think it’s a problem?”

Gabriel: “No.”

Becker: “At all?

Gabriel: “At all.”

Becker: “None?”

Gabriel: “None.”

The Ethics Commission did report that an Office of General Counsel attorney said Gabriel suggested they steer a contract worth up to $30,000 to Burr & Forman a month before he took a job with the firm.

It was described as “problematic” in those audio recordings, but the dollar amount fell short of a possible violation.

[SIGN UP: Action News Jax Daily Headlines Newsletter]


Becker emailed the Ethics Office about the Ethics Commission’s overall record. Executive Director Kirby Oberdorfer offered historical context and a lengthy defense without specifically citing Gabriel:

· 1968: City’s Charter implemented an Ethics Commission that was eliminated a few years later.

· 1992: Jacksonville Ethics Commission was re-established.

· 1999: the City’s first Ethics Code was adopted.

· 2007 (November): City Council authorized the Jacksonville Ethics Commission to receive complaints and issue findings and establish a hotline. Prior to this date, the Ethics Commission did not have the authority to receive complaints and could only give advisory opinions.

· 2008 (April): the Ethics Commission created a Hotline Subcommittee (now referred to as Complaints Committee). Hotline Procedures were also adopted in 2008.

· 2009-2012: the Ethics Commission worked to gain the independence of the Ethics Office and Commission, which was achieved in 2010. As part of the independence, the duties of the Ethics Commission and Ethics Office were extensively revised in 2011. As a result, the Ethics Commission adopted official Complaint Procedures in 2012 to ensure due process and confidentiality in the handling of complaints.

“Since 2007, the Jacksonville Ethics Commission has received approximately 150 complaints (give or take some). The Ethics Commission’s volunteer citizen members have spent countless hours working to thoroughly investigate matters and reach a resolution in each case that best serves the citizens of Jacksonville. While the Ethics Commission has never made a finding of probable cause or a violation of the Ethics Code, the Commission has taken significant action in several cases including referring complaints to the State Ethics Commission, providing Letters of Instruction, and entering into settlement agreements where respondents agreed to take corrective action. In addition, the Ethics Commission has proposed improving legislation and City policies to prevent particular situations from reoccurring.

This is comparable with the work of the Ethics Commissions in Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County, as well as the Florida Commission on Ethics in Tallahassee. It is very rare for ethics complaints to result in a finding of probable cause and even more rare for a finding of a violation of the ethics code provisions.

As the Ethics Commission only has jurisdiction to address alleged violations of the local Ethics Code (Jacksonville Ordinance Code Chapter 602), complaints that are filed with the Ethics Commission generally do not involve any criminal allegations. To my knowledge, there has not been any Ethics Commission complaint that revealed potential criminal activity or allegations and needed to be referred to the SAO. On occasion, information comes into the Ethics Office that alleges potential fraud, waste, abuse or conduct that may end up being criminal. This information is immediately referred to the Office of Inspector General for investigation because the conduct alleged is potentially within the jurisdiction of the OIG, the OIG has investigators certified by state law enforcement, and the OIG has a liaison relationship with the SAO wherein cases with criminal implications are referred by the OIG to the SAO.”

The Work of the Ethics Office

“I have been involved with the City’s Ethics Program over a decade as both a volunteer member of the Ethics Commission and as an employee in the Ethics Office. Like the State Ethics Commission, the Ethics Office is committed to a proactive and preventative approach to state and local ethics laws. The result is an increasing number of inquiries coming into the Ethics Office for advice and training before issues arise. This year alone, the Ethics Office has provided guidance on several hundred matters and will train well over 1,000 elected officials, City employees and board members who want to do things in accordance with state and local ethics laws. It is rare for the Florida Commission on Ethics to receive a complaint relating to the City of Jacksonville and we strive to continue this by working every day to prevent violations before they occur.”


“Mayor Deegan is aware that the Jacksonville Ethics Commission conducted an extensive investigation into the allegations against Mr. Gabriel. After several meetings and hundreds of hours of work, this neutral group of volunteers and citizens dismissed the case. Mayor Deegan has full faith and confidence in Mr. Gabriel’s ability to chair the Qualifications Review Committee and lead a transparent process.”

Click here to download the free Action News Jax news and weather apps, click here to download the Action News Jax Now app for your smart TV and click here to stream Action News Jax live.