Sunday, March 20, 2016
REP. BROWN STAFFER's JTA CONFLICT OF INTEREST: T-U
Staffer for U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown also works with JTA, raising conflict-of-interest questions
Brown's community development director has made hundreds of thousands with the transit agency
By Steve Patterson, Christopher Hong & Nate Monroe Sat, Mar 19, 2016 @ 1:03 pm | updated Sat, Mar 19, 2016 @ 7:08 pm
Monday, August 3, 2015 at the Mary Singleton Senior Center in Jacksonville, Florida. (The Florida Times-Union, Will Dickey)
A longtime staffer for U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown has for years used her connections with the congresswoman in contract work with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite federal rules meant to prevent conflicts of interest.
Von Alexander is Brown’s community development director, a job that pays about $25,000 yearly and offers health and retirement benefits. At the same time, she has been a JTA subcontractor whose work regularly involves communicating with Brown’s office.
Defining the role Alexander plays at JTA can be tricky. Neither Alexander — through her attorney — nor Brown’s office would comment on the issue. JTA officials say Alexander performed community outreach and “provided credibility with our customer base” during sensitive undertakings like overhauling the city’s bus routes and adjusting senior-citizen fares.
But thousands of pages of public records, including emails, contracts and invoices, show that Alexander was also essentially a go-between with Brown’s office.
Her regular email contact with JTA officials can make it hard to decipher whether Alexander, funded by taxpayer money through both employers, is representing the interests of the congresswoman or the agency.
Since 2006, Alexander has made at least $341,000 through her work on several JTA contracts. At times, records show, Alexander was paid up to $150 per hour for outreach work that included handing out JTA flyers at churches and ice cream socials.
Members of Congress and their staffs are barred from using their positions — where they would have access to information or contacts they wouldn’t otherwise have — for private benefit or to hold work with an outside person or organization with interests before Congress. Ethics rules for House of Representatives employees also tell them not to serve in local government offices unless they can “maintain an absolute separation of the two positions.”
Alexander’s arrangement “definitely appears to be a conflict,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
The conflict-of-interest policy “basically bans anyone like Von Alexander who is working for a congressional office to help someone get in front of ... Congress,” he said. ”It’s important they follow the spirt of the regulation as well as the letter of the law.”
Alexander works as a subcontractor handling pieces of larger projects awarded to other companies, not directly for JTA. However, a partner in a company holding one of those contracts described Alexander’s responsibilities as “general government affairs and public affairs duties as the Authority requests.”
JTA officials didn’t know Alexander was Brown’s employee, agency spokeswoman Leigh Ann Rassler said Friday, although Alexander has been closely associated with the congresswoman’s campaign efforts for years.
A one-page resume included in a bid for JTA work describes Alexander’s 22 years of public relations and marketing experience, but says nothing about her being on Brown’s payroll for the past 15 years. Elsewhere, Alexander does list her work with Brown’s political committee, Friends of Corrine Brown. The Times-Union could only find one place where Alexander’s role in Brown’s office was disclosed: Quarterly payroll disbursement reports issued by the House chief administrative officer.
Regardless, it’s evident that agency officials knew Alexander had a close relationship with the congresswoman, and the agency at times leaned on that for help.
“Quite an ethical morass,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, an advocacy group focused on improving public control over government. He was responding to a Times-Union question that didn’t name people or agencies involved, but described Alexander’s role at JTA, where she works with agency staff that include JTA’s government relations officer.
Holman noted the House Ethics Manual lists a staffer working part-time for a lobbying and consulting company, even on subjects different than his work in Congress, as an example of forbidden work. “It is fundamental that a[n] … employee of the House may not use his or her official position for personal gain, including … compensation for outside employment,” the manual says.
Members of Congress are supposed to control outside work by their staffs. That means Brown and Alexander could both be held responsible if rules were broken.
It’s not clear how far back Alexander’s work with JTA dates, and the agency’s response to the Times-Union didn’t address that question. Records and interviews with a JTA contractor that worked with Alexander indicate she worked on agency projects at least as early as 2006, during former JTA executive director Michael Blaylock’s tenure.
Large parts of the work Alexander handles for JTA are ordinary public affairs tasks, from contacting radio stations to helping create TV segments, that have nothing to do with Congress. She can also manage a “street team” of outreach workers when needed. Alexander, who is black, also keeps up contact with influential figures in black-community discussions on subjects ranging from minority contracting to neighborhood issues.
Alexander, 65, has done public relations work in Jacksonville since the 1990s, after working with a black women’s campaign challenging gangsta rap and living through a hurricane in the Virgin Islands that upended her life. She has worked for Brown since 2001, when she was paid about $10,800 more than her wages for 2015.
JTA staff seem to have taken Alexander’s connection to Brown as a given.
“I assume Von has asked the Congresswoman her opinion,” JTA Vice President Alice Tolbert Cannon wrote in a 2013 email as staff mulled a letter from the agency to Anthony Foxx, then still being confirmed by the Senate as U.S. transportation secretary.
Alexander’s work with JTA also offers insight into Brown’s own close relationship with the independent city agency.
Brown has every reason to keep tabs on JTA.
The Jacksonville Democrat is a senior member of a powerful House transportation committee, and her advocacy has repeatedly helped direct increasingly competitive federal money to high-priority JTA projects. Her constituents — many of whom are low-income — are also among the primary users of JTA services such as bus and paratransit service.
In 2012, Brown took the unusual step of meeting with the three finalists vying to become the agency’s chief executive officer, and she attended the 2012 meeting when the board of directors selected Nathaniel Ford as CEO to succeed Blaylock in leading the agency. Brown didn’t endorse one candidate, but she told JTA’s board the choice between two black finalists, including Ford, and one white could carry civic importance.
It’s clear the relationship has also yielded benefits for Brown and JTA officials that fall outside lines of strict business.
Calling Brown “one of my closest associates,” Ford asked the congresswoman in 2014 to back his bid for a leadership position in the American Public Transportation Association, an industry advocacy group. Brown complied, writing that Ford had “both the institutional knowledge and the innovative spirit needed” for the post.
JTA staff and contractors were also heavily involved in planning a 2013 golf tournament that bore Brown’s name and was billed as raising money for charity through an organization called One Door for Education. The president of One Door, Carla Wiley, pleaded guilty this month to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in a scheme that bilked donors out of about $800,000 through events like the golf tournament.
Alexander was among the JTA contractors who helped organize the golf tournament; attendees were told to send her RSVPs.
Brown received a subpoena from federal authorities in January, and Alexander was visited by federal agents the same day. It’s unclear if Brown’s subpoena is related to the investigation of One Door, though facts presented in court papers point to Brown as an unnamed co-conspirator along with Wiley.
In contracts the Times-Union reviewed, Alexander and her business, the Alexander Agency, are part of a group of companies working under larger contracts, including:
■ Jones Worley, an Atlanta-based firm contracted by JTA since 2013 to handle its corporate communications and marketing.
On paper, the Alexander Agency’s role is to work on an as-needed basis with Jones Worley and three other subcontractors that have larger roles.
But the $66,625 Alexander earned under that contract is the second-highest amount out of all of the project’s subcontractors — including two of the principal firms, according to JTA records.
The Times-Union requested all invoices and documents related to Alexander’s payment under the Jones Worley contract. Documents JTA provided showed invoices and descriptions of Alexander’s work for $22,700. When asked to explain or provide documents that would explain the work Alexander performed to receive the remaining $43,925, JTA declined to provide an answer and said Jones Worley was responsible for providing the information.
The documents JTA did provide show Alexander was often paid $150 per hour to participate in JTA meetings and strategy sessions, write outreach materials and attend and pass out flyers at churches, ice cream socials and other events.
Alexander played a “minor, but important” role in Jones Worley’s work with JTA by using her “extensive” knowledge of the local community, said company spokeswoman Alma Hill in a written statement. JTA didn’t request that Jones Worley work with Alexander or have any influence in the decision to hire her, Hill said.
“...We wanted consultants who would be feet-on-the-ground and who had institutional knowledge of or experience working with the Authority,” Hill’s statement said. “All of the sub-contractors we ultimately selected ... met all of those criteria.”
■ Reynolds, Smith and Hill, an engineering company that performs a range of work for JTA.
Since Alexander began working for JTA under RS&H in 2006, she has earned $230,000, said company spokesman Mike Bernos. He said the company needed an outreach partner and wanted someone with experience working with JTA, and Alexander was already working for JTA under another contractor.
Bernos said JTA didn’t request that they work with Alexander or play any influence in their decision to hire her.
The Times-Union requested all invoices and work descriptions from JTA about Alexander’s work with RS&H.
The documents JTA provided only included single invoices from 2013 for three projects. One invoice, for communications planning and support, shows Alexander billing $5,600 for work done over a four-month period and having earned $25,710 in total over the course of that project. Another invoice shows Alexander having earned a total of $14,225 under another communications planning and support project. A third shows her receiving a total of $59,060 under a project described as “redesign and service expansion support.”
JTA declined to further explain Alexander’s work on those projects and referred any questions about them to RS&H.
■ Ballard Partners, a statewide lobbying firm that holds a state and local lobbying contract with JTA. Under that contract, Alexander has earned $45,000 since 2013.
Alexander, who isn’t a registered lobbyist, is paid a flat monthly fee for performing general government affairs and public affairs duty as JTA requests, said Susie Wiles, a partner with Ballard Partners, in a written statement.
Wiles said she was unaware Alexander was an employee of Brown. When asked if JTA asked Ballard to hire Alexander, she didn’t provide a direct answer.
“The Ballard team was formed after consultation with the Authority concerning their needs, with other team members and with an eye toward presenting a fully functioning team to serve the Authority in Tallahassee and Jacksonville,” Wiles wrote.
The statement characterized Alexander as “an experienced public affairs/government affairs professional and she rounded out the Ballard team to support JTA’s local and state endeavors.”
Rassler said Brown’s office has never expressed interest in whether Alexander was part of JTA’s external affairs team.
Brown has declined to talk about Alexander’s work for her, refusing to answer questions about whether Brown pre-approved her working for JTA; whether anyone asked House attorneys if that work posed problems; even what Alexander’s staff duties are, being one of just six House staffers whose title involves community development.
“I have no comment,” Brown said through a spokesman.
Alexander, who has also been paid for political campaign work, used the same AOL email account to stay in touch for a range of clients, according to public records available from several agencies.
And when she was shifting from task to task in those emails, it could be hard sometimes to keep straight which employer she represented.
When JTA sought a $15 million grant from the U.S. Transportation Department last year, Alexander emailed Brown’s legislative director a reminder the congresswoman had promised to send a supportive letter to Foxx, the transportation secretary. She attached a suggested draft and a fact sheet about JTA’s project.
“... They need the support letters,” she wrote, pleading JTA’s case.
But when she emailed Ford’s aide about setting up a meeting with a bishop to discuss transportation issues near his church, it read like a note from Brown’s office.
“CB had suggested a meeting,” Alexander wrote, recommending a week in March to schedule it. “… Congresswoman would like to do this meeting with him.”
And the same day Alexander emailed a Jacksonville councilman’s office about information it sent to JTA, she sent the councilman and others a note telling “Team CB” about a need for poll workers to watch early voting sites in that year’s elections.
Sometimes, it’s not clear in what capacity Alexander is speaking in emails: Political advocacy on Brown’s behalf, public outreach through her congressional office or JTA subcontractor?
As Election Day approached, for example, she blasted out another message.
“QUICK PICKS ARE AVAILABLE AT GEORGE SPENCERS OFFICE NOW,” she announced, referencing the ballot-style endorsement sheets Brown has for years distributed by the thousands for city and state elections. Spencer was a council candidate Brown endorsed.
Times-Union writer Andrew Pantazi contributed to this report.
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