Toto was the hero of The Wizard of Oz. He was Dorothy’s canine companion who pulled back the huge curtain to expose a little man impersonating an all-powerful wizard. It’s the perfect analogy for our current situation, in which former Kids Hope Alliance CEO Joe Peppers has exposed corruption in city government.
Last month, The Florida Times-Union reported on a detailed internal memo in which Peppers “level[ed] an explosive allegation: Mayor Lenny Curry’s office was exerting ‘undue influence’ on him to give preferential treatment to a hand-picked groups of organizations that would soon seek grant money from the city agency.” The top two city officials identified by Peppers were Brian Hughes, the mayor’s chief of staff, and Sam Mousa. It was a courageous step, and it would cost Peppers his job. He was suspended two days after the Times-Union story.
Moved to action by the incident, Jacksonville City Councilmember Garrett L. Dennis sent a letter to Maria Chapa Lopez, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. “I write,” the letter stated, “to express serious concerns regarding recent allegations of procurement fraud by high-ranking individuals in the office of Mayor Lenny Curry.” Dennis concluded by calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to “investigate whether any crimes have been committed.”
As for Curry, his approach to governing was revealed immediately after he took the oath of office. The incoming mayor demanded the resignation of all citizens serving on any commission, board or agency in Jacksonville. Democracy in this city has tragically transformed into autocracy during his tenure. Autocratic government is characterized by one person with absolute power and a dictatorship. What about City Council? It’s a puppet regime whose strings are pulled by the mayor. At this point, Jacksonville does not have two independent and separate branches of government. The legislative is an extension of the executive. Only a few councilmembers, like Dennis, are taking the lonely stand for democracy.
It would not take a rocket scientist to guess who and what was behind Peppers’ suspension. The Kids Hope Alliance board met the following week, on Aug. 21, and its members were asked to approve City Hall’s unilateral decision to place their CEO on administrative leave. Vice-chair Barbara Darby demurred, observing that the board should have been consulted prior to the suspension. KHA leadership issues, she argued, are the board’s responsibility. City attorney Jon R. Phillips was present, and indicated that board approval was a mere formality. Peppers’ ouster was a fait accompli.
Dr. Darby raised a key point about organizational responsibility and operational control in her city agency. The larger question is this: How many other agencies, boards and commissions are being strong-armed, threatened and controlled by Mayor Curry and his cronies? Think of City Hall’s ongoing power struggle with Duval County Public Schools and its independent, elected board.
Toto saved the day by exposing the little man shooting out blazing flames and booming smoke behind the curtains. We know who’s pulling the levers of power in Jacksonville. Councilmember Dennis provided the answer in his letter to U.S. Attorney Lopez: “There have long been allegations of Curry, Hughes and Mousa using undue influence, threats, and retaliation to get preferential treatment for selected individuals, organizations and companies.” We need a Racketeer Influence & Corrupt Organization Investigation (RICO) to save city government and democracy in Jacksonville.
Gray is a very concerned citizen.