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The Extortion Question

City Hall’s shakedown of Duval County Public Schools is shameful

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In the 2019 film Extortion, a family vacationing in the Bahamas gets stranded on a nearby island. Father, wife and son think they’re saved by two fishermen until one of the rescuers asks the father, “How much is your family’s life worth?"

City Hall asked Duval County Public Schools a similar question when the school board sought $1.9 billion in sales tax dollars for dilapidated infrastructure. Now citizens have questions about the ethics and, frankly, legality of the referendum assistance offered by two of Mayor Lenny Curry’s close associates. Sam Mousa, a very recently retired city official, and Curry’s political consultant Tim Baker pitched their lobbying services to two DCPS school board members, Lori Hershey and Warren Jones. Mousa and Baker offered to grease the skids and convince a publicly skeptical mayor and City Council to approve the school board’s proposed half-cent sales tax referendum, which would fund the much-needed maintenance.

DCPS would have to pay a price. First, it would have to spend up to $450,000 in consulting fees—when the mayor’s mouthpieces were disingenuously grumbling about the cost of a special election, no less. More importantly, though, the school board would have to accept a delay in the referendum timetable. Board members had originally recommended a 2019 referendum. City Hall preferred 2020, presumably to give charter-school interests time to earmark more of the potential sales-tax revenue. In fact, as Jones told Christopher Hong and Emily Bloch of The Florida Times-Union, Mousa demanded a $150 million upfront guarantee for the charter schools. The deal was pitched during a June phone call that Jones said “blew him away.” As in the film Extortion, Sam Mousa and Tim Baker were, in essence, asking Lori Hershey, Warren Jones and DCPS, “How much is your school-maintenance plan worth?"

According to Wikipedia, “extortion (also called shakedown, and, in a legal sense incorrectly, exaction) is obtaining benefit through coercion. In most jurisdictions it is likely to constitute a criminal offense, the bulk of this article deals with such cases ... In law extortion can refer to political corruption, such as selling one`s office or influence peddling.” Is that what Mousa proposed to Hershey and Jones? It sure sounds like it.

Finally, the school board did not accept Mousa’s contract or assistance. The charter schools did not get the $150 million promise. And Mayor Curry’s City Council did not allow a public vote on the school board’s infrastructure plan. As a result, parents and grandparents are currently suing this City of Jacksonville for killing the referendum.

Public corruption and cronyism run rampant in Jacksonville, though, and Mousa and Baker did get their no-bid contract. It wasn’t with DCPS, but rather with an old friend. As The Florida Times-Union’s Nate Monroe reported, “Mousa is Curry’s former chief administrative officer who, in August, landed a no-bid $120,000 per year consulting contract to, among other things, help the mayor develop policy and oversee special projects.”

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Dr. Gray is a very concerned citizen.

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