Operatives working for Florida Power & Light in the lead-up to the 2020 elections gained control over a Tallahassee-based political news website, making editorial decisions about its content — and allowing executives at the utility to influence coverage, records show.
The records, obtained by the Orlando Sentinel and Floodlight, show that an operative for Alabama-based political consulting firm Matrix LLC, signed an option agreement in September 2019 to purchase a controlling stake in The Capitolist.
The site, which is published by Brian Burgess — who was previously the communications director for former Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott — claims to have “one of the largest and most active Facebook followings in the state” and a dedicated following of influential lawmakers and lobbyists.
The Capitolist purports to be a legitimate news site, saying it seeks to “tell more complete stories” about businesses and policy that might be overlooked by traditional outlets.
But leaked Matrix records, verified as authentic by the firm’s founder, Joe Perkins, show 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Pitts and FPL Vice President for Legislative Affairs Daniel Martell were at times given the opportunity to weigh in on unpublished story drafts.
Meanwhile, Burgess pitched Matrix on even grander media ambitions, such as a $2 million plan to hire a trio of prominent journalists to lead a new publication — or even buying a chain of local papers, in order to use them as propaganda outfits.
Burgess in an emailed statement said he had “never pitched nor solicited feedback from FPL executives on any story or business venture.”
“As the publisher of an independent, for-profit news site dedicated to telling more complete stories than the legacy media, I stand by the facts of every story the Capitolist has written,” he said.
Chris McGrath, a spokesperson for FPL, in a statement said the company “cannot prove the veracity of the documents that have been leaked to reporters.”
“We have seen evidence that some of these documents have been doctored to try to make FPL look bad,” he said, though the utility has repeatedly refused to provide evidence of documents having been manipulated. “We have found absolutely no evidence of illegality or wrongdoing by FPL or its employees.”
It’s not unusual for utilities and other companies to operate publications where it’s clear they’re sponsoring the content, said Susan Keith, an associate journalism professor at Rutgers University. But she said outlets where “an unseen motivation” is guiding coverage are problematic.
“If readers don’t know why story selections are being made or what is influencing story selection,” said Keith, “that’s where things are dangerous.”
The Capitolist records emerged during an ongoing investigation by the Orlando Sentinel and Floodlight into Matrix’s work for FPL. The utility’s relationship with the Birmingham firm has come under scrutiny after Matrix operatives orchestrated a “ghost” candidate scheme to influence three state Senate races in 2020.
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The firm, which FPL employed for about a decade, worked behind the scene to advance the utility’s interests and help it avoid unwanted regulation, from working to oust unfriendly politicians, to manipulating constitutional amendment drives and even having a journalist surveilled who’d written critically about the company. FPL has said it did not know about the surveillance and an external review of its work with Matrix found no wrongdoing by any employees at the utility.
The acquisition of The Capitolist was led by Abigail MacIver, who at the time was a Matrix operative integral to the firm’s Florida operations. She signed the agreement giving her the option to purchase a majority stake in The Capitolist through an LLC. The records suggest the deal was consummated through another entity a year later.
MacIver in an email said a non-disclosure agreement prevents her from discussing her time at Matrix. She called the records “dubious” and said she believed Perkins had leaked them maliciously.
“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 said.
John Collins, a spokesman for Pitts, said in a text message that the records provided to news outlets were “manufactured.” He did not elaborate or provide examples.
During and after the purchase, records show Matrix consultants and FPL executives had input into stories written for the site, including a piece that criticized The Miami Herald for asking readers to donate to an investigative journalism fund.
In one email, FPL’s CEO Eric Silagy forwarded the Herald’s donation request to Pitts, writing that The Capitolist “would have a field day with this one.” He suggested that they include in their piece an image of the Miami Herald’s Tallahassee bureau chief “with a tin cup on the street corner.”
Two days after Silagy’s email, The Capitolist published a story with Burgess’ byline that read: “The Miami Herald has turned to begging to support their biased reporting and fear-mongering.”
“While we cannot confirm the veracity of the email you’ve shared with us, it’s not hard to see the irony in how the Miami Herald’s reporting — which is frequently biased against FPL and critical of how we run our business — doesn’t seem to be a sustainable business model and, on the heels of its former parent company’s highly publicized bankruptcy proceeding, resorted to soliciting donations to stay afloat,” said McGrath, the FPL spokesperson.
Dana Banker, senior managing editor for the Miami Herald, which published its own story on The Capitolist on Monday, declined to comment.
The records date back to months before MacIver signed a contract to set up the Capitolist purchase, showing that even before the contract was signed Burgess was soliciting input on unpublished stories from the Matrix operative.
For example, Burgess sent MacIver a draft of a March 2019 story critical of efforts to deregulate the energy industry asking for “your thoughts on this.” MacIver forwarded it to Martell.
“I’m not sure that I love this article...please let me know your thoughts,” she asked the executive.
“I like it,” he replied.
Records show Matrix also considered purchasing or creating other news sites. Burgess in 2018 proposed a scheme to Pitts to lure three prominent Florida political journalists to a new site called “Topline Florida” at a cost of about $2 million over three years.
In April 2020, Burgess suggested to Matrix executives that they purchase several local Florida newspapers owned by media giant Gannett Co., including Florida Today, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Fort Myers News-Press. Burgess told MacIver they could turn most of 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,” Burgess wrote in an email. “We could even do it stealthily so we could inject content into all those publications and nobody has to know who’s actually pulling the strings.”
Pitts forwarded Burgess’ email to Silagy and an FPL vice president at their personal email addresses, describing the pitch as “a good concept/observation that I’m sure others are seeing/thinking about.”
Asked if FPL had considered buying any Florida newspapers, McGrath suggested the utility wouldn’t consider them a sound investment.
“While FPL and NextEra Energy is always open to acquisition opportunities, we only pursue transactions that would add incremental value to customers and shareholders. Most Florida newspapers, while critically important to American democracy, don’t fit that description,” he said.
While working closely with Silagy, Martell and other FPL executives, Matrix employees funded a massive ad blitz promoting apparent spoiler candidates in three key 2020 state Senate races, helping oust from office state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democratic who was one of the utility’s biggest foes in the Legislature.
Five people have since been charged in the “ghost” candidate scheme, though neither Matrix nor FPL have been accused of wrongdoing. FPL denies that its employees played any role.
These and other leaked records have emerged amid a legal battle between Perkins, the Matrix founder, and his former CEO, Pitts, who exited Matrix in December 2020 along with MacIver, since founding a Tallahassee-based firm, Canopy Partners. FPL became clients of Canopy after the split, but said it has since ended its relationship with Pitts.
Perkins says the Florida activities of his ex-employees, including the “ghost” candidate scheme and the Capitolist purchase, were done without his knowledge. Pitts says his former boss is selectively leaking documents to smear and extort him.
This story is part of a partnership between the Orlando Sentinel and Floodlight, a nonprofit investigative newsroom.