Florida news website controlled by FPL consultants, report says
A Tallahassee-based conservative online political news website was secretly funded and controlled by consultants linked to Florida Power & Light to secure publication of positive stories about the state’s most powerful public utility and get negative stories published about those FPL deemed as opponents, according to media reports.
The stunning allegations raised against the FPL consultants and The Capitolist are based on a “massive leak” of documents, including emails and text messages, to two separate news organizations — the Miami Herald and a joint reporting partnership between the Orlando Sentinel and Floodlight. The stories were published late Monday.
The records obtained reveal that an operative for Matrix LLC, an Alabama-based political consulting firm, hired by FPL, had signed an agreement to purchase a controlling stake in The Capitolist before the 2020 election. Matrix officials said they did not know about or sign any such agreement, and played no role in the purchase of The Capitolist.
The online publication was founded in 2016 by Brian Burgess, the former communications director of former Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
The Herald reported The Capitolist was “bankrolled and controlled by executives of the power company” through Matrix. It said it used the online news site “as part of an elaborate, off-the-books political strategy to advocate for rate hikes, agitate for legislative favors, slam political opponents and eliminate anything — even home solar panels — that the publicly-traded utility worried might undermine its near monopoly on selling power in the Sunshine State.”
The Sentinel reported the leaked records showed that then-Matrix CEO Jeff Pitts and FPL Vice President for Legislative Affairs Daniel Martell “were at times given the opportunity to weigh in on unpublished story drafts” and the power to make editorial decisions about its content. The news website also let FPL executives “influence coverage.”
Burgess had at one point sought more media influence, reported the Sentinel and Herald, when he floated two ideas to the consultants: Spend $2 million to hire prominent journalists to start up a new publication or buy several of Gannett’s Florida newspapers “in order to use them as propaganda outfits.”
Burgess mentioned Gannett-owned newspapers Florida Today, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Fort Myers News-Press and told Matrix executives they could turn them into “ghost operations” with few reporters.
“Then we could let most of the clown reporters go, save a fortune, eliminate print, and syndicate content across the entire state,” the Sentinel reported Burgess wrote in an email.
The Herald reported that The Capitolist, with “enthusiastic approval” from FPL leaders, published stories that criticized news outlets, and sometimes individual reporters, especially if they wrote stories critical of FPL.
Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas, who had written often about FPL, was a frequent target, the Herald reported. But The Capitolist also targeted other papers and journalists.
After The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica published an investigation on sugar cane burning, The Capitolist wrote stories criticizing the coverage, the paper and the reporter, Lulu Ramadan. The project was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Most were penned by Burgess. They criticized the project, which examined the preharvest practice that sends plumes of pollution-filled smoke over low-income, mostly minority residents of the Glades, an area of western Palm Beach County that is the largest sugarcane-producing region in the country. The series also explored possible health effects of the smoke on residents who live near the burning cane fields.
The Herald reported that The Capitolist’s operating expenses, including a $12,000 monthly paycheck to Burgess, were paid “through a network of shell companies backed by FPL” as early as January 2018. It also reported that articles were pre-screened by “a group of private communications experts consulting for FPL — a group Burgess once referred to in an email as ‘the whole Ed Board.’”
One example, the Herald reported, was a negative story in 2018 about then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. The Capitolist published its story only days before the election with the headline: “Andrew Gillum wants you to ignore corruption, crime and police scandals and make him governor.” The story idea had come from a text sent by an FPL executive to the Matrix consultants, according to the Herald.
Burgess told the Sentinel he “never pitched nor solicited feedback from FPL executives on any story or business venture” and that he ran an “independent” news operation.
He told the Herald in a statement that he had never “met, corresponded with, spoken to, nor do I have any relationship whatsoever with the FPL executives you mentioned.” The Herald reported that records it obtained showed that Burgess “only communicated with FPL’s intermediaries.”
In response to the allegations raised by both news outlets, FPL told the USA Today Network-Florida in an email that the company questions the authenticity of the documents obtained by the media outlets and that its employees did nothing wrong.
“As we stated to the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel, we cannot prove the veracity of the documents that have been leaked to reporters,” said FPL spokesperson Chris McGrath. “We have seen evidence that some of these documents have been doctored to try to make FPL look bad.”
“We have found absolutely no evidence of illegality or wrongdoing by FPL or its employees,” McGrath added.
“To be clear, owning a media organization is not and has never been a crime,” said McGrath, noting that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry owns the Boston Globe and a private investment firm owns the Miami Herald.
“While it would be perfectly legal, FPL does not have an ownership interest in the Capitolist — either directly or indirectly,” he said. “We also do not have editorial control over what the Capitolist writes or publishes.”
“As we do with media organizations across the state and nation, we distribute news releases to the Capitolist and, when requested, respond to its media inquiries,” he said.
The Sentinel reported that FPL “has repeatedly refused to provide evidence of documents having been manipulated.”
The Capitolist connection
The Sentinel reported that the unknown role of The Capitolist’s connection to the Matrix consultants emerged after the newspaper, along with their partner Floodlight, did further reporting into Matrix’s work for FPL. Floodlight is a nonprofit newsroom that “investigates the powerful interests stalling climate action.”
Matrix and Canopy Partners LLC — a separate Florida-based political consulting firm formed in part by former Matrix employees — are locked in a bitter legal battle in courtrooms in Florida and Alabama.
The fight revolves around accusations from Matrix owner Joe Perkins. He has accused Jeff Pitts, the head of Canopy and the former CEO of Matrix, of being one of the ringleaders working on secret FPL projects, and diverting millions in fees that were otherwise owed to Matrix.
Pitts and Canopy have countersued Perkins, accusing him of extortion, defamation and of leaking information to the media.
The alleged secret projects included one to orchestrate multiple spoiler-candidate schemes in South and Central Florida, allegations being investigated by prosecutors in Miami.
Another involved Jacksonville’s city-owned utility, the JEA. Matrix worked with FPL during a period in which JEA leaders were in the process of attempting to sell the city-owned electric, water and sewer utility to a private operator. FPL’s parent company, NextEra, submitted an $11 billion bid. The sale fell apart amidst a scandal that led to federal indictments for two top JEA executives.
The Florida Times-Union, in a story published last month, reported that Matrix had in its possession a background report on Florida Times-Union columnist Nate Monroe, who had been at the forefront of covering the attempted sale of JEA and the investigations that followed the collapse of the sales process.
Surveilling Jacksonville columnist
The 72-page report, compiled by a private investigator, delved into his personal life. Leaked documents to Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel and Floodlight revealed that a licensed private investigator was involved in intensive surveillance of Monroe over a period of two years. Those records also included a photo of Monroe with his then-girlfriend — the photo was taken without their knowledge while they walked their dog just outside their home.
Perkins, the owner of Matrix, verified the authenticity of the leaked records that formed the basis for the Times-Union stories on the surveillance but attributed the work — as well as a host of other things done on behalf of FPL — to a group of rogue employees, including Pitts, his former CEO, working without his knowledge.
Perkins told the Times-Union he didn’t know about the background report or the photo until a search found them on a computer server that stored files of former employees who were acting without his authorization.
The Florida Times-Union also is owned by Gannett, which owns The Palm Beach Post and Palm Beach Daily News, along with 15 other newspapers in Florida.
The Sentinel reported that an agreement to buy a majority stake in The Capitolist was led by Abigail MacIver, who was with Matrix. The newspaper reported she signed it through a separate Limited Liability Company, or LLC, and that it was completed a year later through another entity.
Perkins told the USA Today Network-Florida that the agreement was not signed on behalf of Matrix, but rather for the Métis Group, a company owned by MacIver.
MacIver told the Sentinel that a non-disclosure agreement keeps her from talking about employment with Matrix, but she called the records “dubious” and accused Perkins, the Matrix owner, of leaking them.
“Joe’s interest is solely in causing damage to me, my partners, and our associates and I will not justify his effort with any response,” she told the Sentinel.
The Capitolist reports having more than 40,000 newsletter subscribers who are “highly engaged influencers who represent Florida’s movers and shakers.” And it’s often critical of other media, arguing that it’s “virtually impossible for Florida’s businesses to get a fair shake from the legacy media in our state.”
This year, it reported having 11 different companies and organizations as sponsors or advertisers.
Sergio Bustos is Enterprise/Politics Editor for Florida’s Gannett/USA Today Network. He’s based in South Florida. Email: email@example.com