Power outside the spotlight: Tony Nelson
Published by Florida Times-Union on August 24, 2008.
He quietly rose from elementary school teacher to top spots on public boards. An FBI investigation into companies he runs thrust him into the spotlight. Details of how he gained positions of power and influence are a mystery.
For the past two decades, Tony Nelson has been well-known in political circles and the construction world. He has friends in high places, has sat on powerful public boards and has had a hand in some of the largest projects in Jacksonville.
But to the general public, Nelson has operated under the radar, known - if at all - as the head of a local nonprofit intended to help develop and grow minority businesses.
No records show how effective Nelson has been at this job: Progress reports to the city showing how the nonprofit was using grant money tended to list the same handful of companies time after time as examples of success.
What is clear, however, is that the job provided a springboard for Nelson's personal success, turning the former school teacher into the sort of man appointed by three mayors to high-profile posts and who represented Jacksonville in foreign countries in efforts to attract new jobs to the city.
Now, he's most well-known as the focus of an FBI investigation. Friends, though, find it hard to square the Nelson they've known and worked with to the one being investigated.
"The Tony I know is a sweet, nice guy who's a teddy bear, " former Mayor John Delaney said. He calls Nelson a close personal friend, saying the two vacationed together at Nelson's property in American Beach.
"I just can't imagine, " Delaney said, "that Tony's done anything wrong."
In April, the FBI raided two companies run by Nelson, the nonprofit First Coast Black Business Investment Corp. and the for-profit Muirfield Partners Inc. The FBI also searched the offices of two Jacksonville Port Authority contractors, one of which has ties to Nelson, and subpoenaed records from the port, where Nelson served as board vice chairman.
Since then, the Times-Union has reported about questionable loan practices by the BBIC, allegations by a dredger accusing Nelson of wanting a piece of his company in exchange for public contracts, and e-mails showing that Nelson pushed for a friend's firm to get no-bid port contracts.
But despite years of public service and the recent spotlight, many details about Nelson's life and his rise to positions of authority remain a mystery - even to his friends.
Information about Nelson's early years growing up in Jacksonville is scarce. Past media accounts haven't included those details, and he declined to be interviewed for this article.
After graduating from Florida A&M University, Nelson worked as an elementary school teacher. His family has long had ties to the area and owned land at American Beach, some of which Nelson inherited from an uncle. Delaney said Nelson told him he spent a lot of time with an uncle who had no children of his own, but Delaney said he doesn't know much more about Nelson's early years.
More than a dozen of Nelson's friends and associates contacted for this article either said they didn't know much about his history or didn't return calls. Some, like Councilwoman Denise Lee, who has been involved in African-American politics throughout Nelson's career, and Eric Green, a port senior director who has been close to Nelson since at least the early 1990s, declined to talk about Nelson because of the investigation.
What is known is that Nelson was hired in the mid-1980s for the newly created position of director of minority economic development at the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"There was an overt effort on [the chamber's] part to make sure its team would include talented minorities, and Tony was one of them, " recalled Cleve Warren, a former Barnett Bank vice president and later president of the state's Black Business Investment Board, which set up BBICs throughout the state.
Nelson was a good fit for the position, Warren said.
"Tony had a lot of courage, " he said. "He spoke his mind. He was clear-thinking and a very strong advocate for the cause."
In his chamber job, Nelson served on the committee that helped create the First Coast Black Business Investment Corp., and in 1990 chaired the search committee looking for the organization's second president. After passing on the 40-plus applicants, Nelson was urged by a board member to apply for the job. He was hired.
The job provided an entry for Nelson into civic life at a time when the city was focused on increasing minority participation in its contracts. In 1991, the year after taking over the BBIC presidency, Nelson was appointed by Mayor Ed Austin to the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, where he eventually became its first black chairman.
Delaney, who had been Austin's chief of staff, later appointed Nelson to the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission and then to the Jacksonville Port Authority. Mayor John Peyton, who served with Nelson on the JTA, reappointed him to the JPA board.
Delaney said he heard complaints about Nelson, especially when his joint ventures won contracts on two Better Jacksonville Plan projects. But Delaney said he heard similar complaints about other contractors and he chalked it up to company owners unhappy that they lost out on the work.
Nelson's influence rose because those in power put him on their list of people they could work with, public relations executive Marc Little said. Little worked with the group that brought the First Coast BBIC to the area.
"In terms of the mainstream business community, it was very easy to go along with a select few individuals rather than rolling up your sleeves and working with the entire community for the broader good, " he said. "In some cases, they said, 'Let's give it to a few people and call it a day.' "
Nelson was sincere in his goals, at least at the beginning, Little said.
"He wanted to see things happen. As time went by, and you see yourself becoming bigger than you thought you'd be, you tend to believe your own press clippings, " he said. "I truly don't believe he went into the BBIC or anything else important with the notion that he wanted to do what it's been alleged he has done."
A RANGE OF BUSINESS TIES
Although the BBIC has long served as Nelson's public face - usually the only enterprise mentioned in his public biographies - he also oversaw dozens of private companies, ranging from a sprinkler system installer to a funeral services provider, according to state records. Seven businesses for which Nelson serves as an officer or director are still active, as are two for which his wife, Janice, is the sole director.
Nelson's biggest enterprise, though, appears to be Muirfield Partners, a company set up in 2001 "specifically to respond to the needs and opportunities associated with the Better Jacksonville Plan, " according to company documents.
Muirfield, along with two other minority-owned businesses, formed Northside Partners, which then joined with others contractors to bid on the Veterans Memorial Arena project. Northside Partners' role in the venture was to provide support services, cost accounting, minority business compliance reporting and contract administration.
The city didn't have a breakdown of how much Muirfield made working on the $130 million arena, which opened in late 2003.
The same year, Muirfield was part of a joint venture's winning bid to be a program management company on some Better Jacksonville Plan road projects. Muirfield has been paid about $3.5 million so far on the continuing contract.
While the FBI investigation grinds on, Nelson appears to be moving ahead with his various businesses, although still keeping out of the public eye.
Muirfield Partners received its latest $38,000 payment on the road projects in May, and at least one of the clients of the First Coast BBIC has received correspondence signed by Nelson in recent days seeking repayment of a loan.
One job he's stepped away from is his volunteer position on the port board. He resigned in July, saying it was in both his and the port's best interest.
Now Nelson is mainly left with the role he told a Jaxport publication in 2003 fit him best.
"People say I'm a leader, a community icon, " Nelson told the magazine, "but I'm just Tony, just Tony."
AMONG HIS PAST ROLES
- Worked in the mid- to late 1980s as director of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce's Minority Economic Development Department.
- Appointed by Mayor Ed Austin to the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and served from 1991 until 1998.
- Appointed by Mayor John Delaney to the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission and served from 1997 until 2000.
- Appointed by Delaney to the Jacksonville Port Authority in 2001 and reappointed by Mayor John Peyton before resigning in July.
President of nonprofit First Coast Black Business Investment Corp. since 1990, president of Muirfield Partners since 2001.