Former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn walks out of the Bryan Simpson U.S. courthouse in Downtown Jacksonville after being convicted of conspiracy and wire fraud Friday, March 15, 2024. | Will Brown, Jacksonville TodayFormer JEA CEO Aaron Zahn walks out of the Bryan Simpson U.S. courthouse in Downtown Jacksonville after being convicted of conspiracy and wire fraud Friday, March 15, 2024. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today
Former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn walks out of the Bryan Simpson U.S. courthouse in Downtown Jacksonville after being convicted of conspiracy and wire fraud Friday, March 15, 2024. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Zahn guilty in JEA trial; Wannemacher acquitted

Published on March 15, 2024 at 5:03 pm

Former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn was found guilty by a federal jury Friday of attempting to defraud the city-owned utility.

The former executive was charged with conspiracy and wire fraud in connection with covering up an alleged scheme that would have resulted in Zahn making millions in bonuses if JEA were sold.

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He now faces up to 25 years in prison.

Former Chief Financial Officer Ryan Wannemacher was found not guilty.

Ryan Wannemacher, former chief financial officer of JEA, smiles after he was found not guilty of conspiracy and wire fraud on Friday, March 15, 2024, in federal court in Jacksonville. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Mayor Donna Deegan released this statement after the verdicts: “I’m glad justice was served. As has been said, this was one of the greatest schemes to defraud the taxpayers in the history of Jacksonville. During the trial, we heard a lot about the type of behavior that we don’t want to see in our government ever again. JEA will always stay in public hands as long as I’m mayor.”

A spokesperson for JEA also issued a statement: “The trial reinforced at least one key fact: The value of JEA is, and has always been, based on the incredible work of its employees. JEA is proud to be a community-owned utility and will continue to focus on serving our Northeast Florida customers and community every day, as it has since 1895.

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“We are grateful for the dedication and commitment of the members of both juries, who considered a tremendous amount of evidence and delivered a just verdict consistent with that evidence. At JEA, we remain committed to integrity, respect and transparency in all that we do. The actions of a former CEO do not reflect our organization or our values. We appreciate the efforts of all who assisted in delivering this outcome, and we look forward to putting this matter behind us while we focus on moving forward to serve our community.”

Closing arguments in the case wrapped up Wednesday, and separate juries began deliberating Thursday.

The jury for Zahn quickly returned a verdict Thursday evening after 7½ hours of deliberations, but its conclusion was sealed until Friday when the verdict for Wannemacher was reached.

Prosecutors said Zahn schemed to push for the sale and the controversial bonus plan and tried to paint a picture that JEA was struggling. They said Wannemacher helped create the plan and went along with it even though he knew it was problematic.

Zahn’s attorney disputed that. He addressed both juries in closing arguments.

He said there wasn’t any evidence that showed communication between Zahn and Wannemacher, meaning no paper trail, emails, phone records or texts.

Jurors had to figure out what JEA executives knew or did not know when voting on the performance unit plan, a bonus plan that could have resulted in more than $345 million in payouts to JEA leaders if the utility were sold. Multiple people testified in the trial that this kind of bonus plan was unprecedented for government entities.

Wannemacher’s attorney argued that the case came down to what his client was thinking during the key 2019 board meeting when the plan was approved by board members who testified they had no idea about the potential for huge bonus payouts.

Wannemacher’s attorney said he was acting in good faith and being honest and argued the jury never heard any evidence that Wannemacher lied or formed a strategic plan.

Lead image: Former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn walks out of the Bryan Simpson U.S. courthouse in Downtown Jacksonville after being convicted of conspiracy and wire fraud Friday, March 15, 2024. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

This story was produced by News4Jax, a Jacksonville Today news partner.


author image Jim Piggott covers city government and how it will affect the community. He has lived in Jacksonville for nearly 20 years and worked for WJKS, the former ABC affiliate in the city, before coming to WJXT in 1997. author image author image Tiffany Salameh joined the News4Jax team in June 2023 as a member of the I-TEAM and the consumer investigative reporter. Tiffany comes home to Jacksonville from WBND in South Bend, Indiana, where she was nominated for three Emmys for her reporting on community issues and politics.

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