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FBI seizes records of Jacksonville port partners

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on April 26, 2008.

The FBI has raided businesses connected to a member of the Jacksonville Port Authority board, seizing records from companies he leads and from companies doing business with the port.

In separate raids conducted Wednesday, agents searched the offices of Muirfield Partners Inc. and the First Coast Black Business Investment Corp., two businesses led by Tony Nelson, former board chairman and now vice chairman of the Port Authority. Agents also conducted interviews with senior JPA staffers.

Authorities also seized documents from Subaqueous Services Inc., a dredging company that has received millions of dollars in port contracts, including a $2.2 million no-bid contract last year, and Rham Construction, which has a no-bid contract to oversee ongoing construction of a terminal at the port.

State incorporation papers show no obvious connection between those businesses and Nelson.

JPA officials promised to cooperate with the investigation and indicated that it does not appear to focus on the port.

Nelson did not respond to phone messages left Friday at either of the businesses searched by the FBI. But his lawyer said Nelson "was as surprised as anyone" by the raids.

"I'd describe it as a very broad fishing expedition," said attorney Michael Freed. He said Nelson "plans to cooperate with the process."

The FBI confirmed the raids but refused, except generally, to comment further. Jeff Westcott, a spokesman for the agency's Jacksonville office, said agents hauled away "general business records."

Subaqueous Services was hired to carve out a turning basin for ships at a terminal being built at Dames Point, a $2.2 million job that was added to a $2 million maintenance dredging contract it won last year. Rham Construction is being paid $176,000 to manage the multi-million terminal project even though one of the world's foremost marine engineer companies, London-based Hallcrow HPA, has received millions to perform work of similar scope.

Sharing those duties with Rham is "not necessary and not normal," said Paul Starr, HPA's project manager.

Until Jan. 6, 2007, Rham - incorporated since 2004 - listed its address as the building that also houses the headquarters of the Black Business Investment Corp., which lists Nelson as its president. The firm is one of seven corporations in the state dedicated to providing loans to black-owned businesses, giving Nelson stature in the minority- and emerging-businesses communities.

To date, the company has been paid $132,446. The company's invoices give no detail about the scope of its work, merely indicating "professional construction management service." In contrast, HPA has submitted dozens of pages with each invoice, documenting charges and hours of work.

Nelson was appointed to the JPA board by Mayor John Peyton.

"It's our policy to not comment on ongoing situations like this one," said Susie Wiles, the mayor's spokeswoman. "We really don't have any firsthand knowledge."



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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