It looks like Sam Mousa is at it again. In the mid-’90s, Mousa, then director of public works for the city, faced criticism for his role overseeing a contract between Jacksonville and J.B. Coxwell Contracting to fill the city’s northern landfill, a project that finally concluded two years behind schedule, spawned two lawsuits, and ultimately cost $32 million, $24 million of which was paid to J.B. Coxwell. In 2003, Mousa left the public sector and became executive vice president of J.B. Coxwell.
Subsequently, J.B. Coxwell started raking in contracts under the city’s Better Jacksonville Plan, which Mousa oversaw when he was chief administrative officer under Mayor John Delaney, causing some to question the propriety of those contracts. The Florida Times-Union reported in 2006 that the company had “captured $48 million worth of work” under the program.
Today, it seems as if history is repeating itself. Last June, Sam Mousa was one of the first tapped for a post with Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration. As chief administrative officer, Mousa is the highest-ranking — and highest-paid — member of the administration. His annual salary is $300,000; some $119,667.96 more than Mayor Curry’s.
The loss of Mousa hasn’t hurt J.B. Coxwell’s bottom line, however. In October, the city released a request for proposals for three construction projects: parks, vertical/architectural and horizontal/civil. The winners of each received a contract with the city to provide all services of that nature for a period of three years. J.B. Coxwell won the horizontal/civil contract, so, for the next three years, every time the city digs a ditch or moves several tons of contaminated dirt, J.B. Coxwell probably gets a check. (The city insists that it has the right to award such work to other firms and, further, that it has the right to nullify this contract.) Nevertheless, through 2019, J.B. Coxwell is in a position to perform every city project that involves roadways, tunnels, earthmoving, bridges, canals, drainage, etc., which typically comprises the bulk of city contracts. Considering how much roadwork the city performs annually, the huge problems with Jacksonville’s drainage system (ask the residents of Arlington and San Marco what happens when it rains), the massive Shipyards project, which some estimate will cost upwards of a billion bucks, etc., it’s easy to imagine J.B. Coxwell will be collecting many, many millions of taxpayer dollars.
Through the city’s public information officer, Jacksonville’s chief of procurement, Greg Pease, counters that the contract’s value is capped at $6 million annually. The city does admit, however, that it has discretion to award contracts to J.B. Coxwell under this agreement that are cumulatively valued at more than $6 million. And the city’s Adopted Capital Improvement Plan for 2016-2010 details much, much more than $6 million of work annually that would be classified as horizontal/civil. For roadway resurfacing alone, the plan includes $9.5 million this fiscal year, $15 million next year and $15 million the following year. And although the mayor’s office doesn’t have the authority to request such contracts, it does have the authority to approve or deny them.
Mousa may not be getting a slice of the action himself, but someone in his family will. His son, Nicholas Mousa, is the managing principle of J.B. Coxwell’s subsidiary, JBC Planning & Engineering. Through the city’s director of external communications and public affairs, Mousa provided the following statement via email in response to FWM’s inquiries:
“Prior to Sam Mousa’s appointment as Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) for the City of Jacksonville, a thorough conflict of interest review was conducted by the Office of General Counsel with respect to JBC Planning & Engineering, LLC. That analysis was also discussed with the City’s Ethics, Compliance, and Oversight Director as well as counsel to the Florida Commission on Ethics. Taking into account, among other things, that the CAO does not have the authority to determine the selection of such professional services, coupled with the CAO’s total relinquishment of control over any interests in JBC, the Office of General Counsel determined that there is no conflict of interest under the present circumstances.”
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Councilman Bill Gulliford did not have any comment about the details of this particular contract, nor how J.B. Coxwell was chosen, but he did have some critiques of the process by which city contracts are awarded. Per Jacksonville’s procurement code, a Competitive Sealed Proposal Evaluation Committee (CSPEC) awards city contracts. (In this case, a two-person subcommittee chose the winner.)
Gulliford believes that the process would be more transparent and accountable if city council had some authority. As it stands, the council is powerless. “I always like the independence the legislative body gave to the process,” he said.
“I’ve had people come to me and raise issues and raise complaints. I’ve been sympathetic but there’s nothing I can do.”
Former city council president Bill Bishop disagrees. Bishop, vice president and principle of architecture firm Akel, Logan & Shafer, said that corruption was a serious problem in the “bad old days” when city council was involved in awarding city contracts; change to the current procedure was the result of years of complaints of bad faith and insider dealings. “The whole point is to attempt to take politics out of the selection process,” Bishop said. “… By and large, the process I believe is reasonable and fair from a procedural standpoint.”
But he does concede that it is possible for the process to be tainted by the predispositions of those who award these contracts, specifically when the qualification criteria include subjective categories. Price is black-and-white, essentially unimpeachable, but other evaluation categories, such as “past professional accomplishments and performance,” “overall willingness to meet time and budget requirements for the projects,” and “experience, competence in and approach to the design and construction of various similar design-build projects,” which were included in the request for proposals, necessarily require the evaluator to rely on their own judgment. Therein lies the problem: Aren’t most people naturally inclined to judge a friend — or the former firm of a high-ranking, powerful public official — more favorably than they might a stranger?
For this contract, the city says that five firms submitted proposals; three were named finalists and presented to the subcommittee of two on Jan. 28; the subcommittee issued its recommendation to select J.B. Coxwell on Feb. 1.
Bishop and Gulliford, along with several sources in the construction industry who asked not to be named, all opined that it might very well be the case that, of the dozen or so local firms that are capable of such work, J.B. Coxwell is the most qualified for this contract. Indeed, the company has a long history of performing large-scale horizontal projects with no known complaints, aside from allegations of insider dealings involving Sam Mousa.
Absent the storied history of Sam Mousa and city contracts, this would be a non-story. But the facts — even potentially innocuous, coincidental ones — do paint a peculiar picture. On May 19, the day that Lenny Curry won the election, J.B. Coxwell posted on social media that it was “hiring for the following positions: Backhoe Operators, Bulldozer Operators, Off Road Truck Drivers, Roller Operators, and General Labor.” The Curry administration took office on July 1; on July 31, Sam Mousa signed (on the mayor’s behalf) an amendment to a contract between the city and J.B. Coxwell for “various minor-medium size civil engineering and park improvement projects in the North Area.” That amendment increased the total cost of the contract by $2 million.
On Sept. 29, J.B. Coxwell won a $9 million contract for the Trail Ridge Landfill enclosure. And then on Feb. 1, the firm reeled in an even bigger fish: a three-year contract to perform all the city’s horizontal/civil work.
Bishop said, “The fact that Sam is Coxwell’s guy and he works in the city now, did that have something to do with it? Probably … but they’re going to do a fine job.”
J.B. Coxwell Contracting did not respond to multiple requests for comment.