TALLAHASSEE — The political committee behind Amendment 1 on solar energy has scrubbed from its social media platforms nearly every reference to the James Madison Institute after revelations that the group's policy director bragged in a leaked audio recording that the utility industry is using the amendment to deceive the public into thinking it is a pro-solar initiative.
Consumers for Smart Solar, a political committee financed primarily by the state's largest utilities, had prominently displayed a favorable voters guide prepared by JMI on its web site, and in most of its promotional materials for the last several months.
But nearly all references were deleted after the Times/Herald reported that JMI's policy director, Sal Nuzzo, was recorded calling the amendment "an incredibly savvy maneuver" that "would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road."
Nuzzo said JMI was asked by Consumers for Smart Solar to conduct research into a rival attempt by solar advocates to end the ban on third-party leasing of solar panels because JMI represented "the adults in the room." He described the subsequent utility-backed constitutional amendment as "political jiu jitsu" used to persuade voters to support restrictions on the expansion of solar by presenting the proposal as a pro-solar initiative.
The admission, made to a conference of conservative groups in Nashville on Oct. 2, contradicted the pro-consumer message the utility-financed group has been pushing. It also confirmed to opponents that the amendment was designed to undercut attempts to allow third-party sales of rooftop solar equipment in Florida.
Consumers for Smart Solar spokesperson Sarah Bascom attempted damage control and denied the group ever coordinated with JMI to provide research to advance their position. JMI President Bob McClure told the Herald/Times on Wednesday that Nuzzo "misspoke" while speaking to an "unfamiliar, national audience."
Consumers for Smart Solar on Thursday removed at least seven Tweets and eight Facebook posts referencing JMI, according to cached files collected by the energy watchdog group, Energy and Policy Institute and its affiliate, the Center for Media and Democracy.
The captured images urged voters to "Click here to read the James Madison Institute's 2016 Florida Amendment Guide and learn how Amendment 1 promotes solar and protects consumers." Some of the messages also urge voters to "Vote YES on 1 For the Sun this November to ensure energy fairness in Florida!"
Just hours before the Herald/Times first reported on the leaked audio of Nuzzo on Tuesday, Consumers for Smart Solar had tweeted out JMI's voters guide three times. By Thursday, CSS was no longer prominently promoting the JMI guide, had removed all but two of their past Tweets and scrubbed its past Facebook posts. It now takes a dig into page 3 of the News page to find the link to download the voters guide.
The voters guide outlines the pros of voting for Amendment 1 in a lengthy 12-sentence analysis, repeating many of the slogans and arguments used by the political committee. By contrast, it provides the reason to vote against the amendment in two sentences.
Bascom called the incident "not a big issue" and deflected blame for the scrubbed website to their consultants.
"Our social media consultants took it upon themselves to remove that information without our directive or permission," she said.
She said CSS is "very disappointed" in the JMI audio "and how it impacted our campaign by painting a false narrative and claiming that Consumers for Smart Solar did something they did not do."
McClure said: "We have no direct relationship with Consumers for Smart Solar and no coordination with them on their campaign, so they are of course within their right to do whatever they want with their campaign."
David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, said the scrubbed web sites is more evidence "the utility-funded group behind Amendment 1 seems to be allergic to telling the truth.
"The utilities can try to delete this scandal right out of existence, but there's no amount of 'jiu-jitsu' that can hide the fact that Amendment 1 is an attack on solar power."
Nuzzo also removed from his personal Facebook page a Sept. 12 post, in which he details the reasons to support Amendment 1. It begins: "Against my better judgment, I am going to make one policy post on Facebook for friends in Florida who will be taking to the polls regarding the solar ballot initiative — Amendment 1.
"Disclaimer — I have been doing policy work in this area for two years now and know enough to be dangerous to myself and others." He took the post down late Thursday. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Nuzzo's recorded comments were made Oct. 2, the evening before the annual meeting of the State Policy Network, a gathering of conservative policy research groups. JMI's McClure portrayed his comments as a novice mistake.
"At an event with an unfamiliar, national audience, Mr. Nuzzo generalized his commentary and misspoke in reference to JMI partnering with Consumers for Smart Solar in any capacity," McClure said in a statement. "JMI has never worked with or received funding from Consumers for Smart Solar."
But it wasn't the first time Nuzzo had attended the State Policy Network annual meeting. Nuzzo also attended in 2014, according to records of the event.
As Nuzzo left Tallahassee for the event this year, he posted on his Facebook page: "About to go full-on nerd with 1,100 of my best friends for four days. Watch out Nashville, the State Policy Network is descending on your city."
According to the SPN web site, the event is a "family reunion of the freedom movement,'' bringing conservative, free-market groups together from across the country.
The group also imposes a strict confidentiality policy, requiring all attendees to register and present a photo ID to be admitted. It prohibits audio or video recording of the event and reserves the right to have "all packages, bags, and other containers subject to search."
The leaked audio provided ammunition for Amendment 1 opponents who have been unable to compete with the $22 million raised by the state's largest investor-owned utilities as well as advocacy groups funded by Exxon and the Koch brothers.
They claim the proposal, titled "Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice," is disguised as a consumer-friendly policy but will in fact create new hurdles for homeowners to have low-cost access to solar panels.
"We now have clear evidence that utilities are using an issue with strong voter support — solar — to mislead Florida voters in order to continue protecting their profits," said Pamela Goodman of the League of Women Voters Florida.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat and member of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Florida lags behind other states in solar generation and the reports confirmed "what many had suspected. the proposed Amendment 1 on the general election ballot is an anti-consumer sham."
"This was no mere slip of the tongue," said Nick Surgey, director of research at the Center for Media and Democracy. "Sal Nuzzo is a senior staff member for JMI, caught boasting to his peers about misleading voters. It could not be more appropriate that it is sunlight pouring in that is revealing this campaign for what it really is, a utility-backed attempt to block the development of solar in the state."
After the released audio, Bascom said, "Consumers for Smart Solar did not engage or hire or ask JMI to do research regarding the effort." She said of Nuzzo: "We don't even know this fellow."
However, Nuzzo was hardly unknown to the supporters of the amendment.
His participation as a panelist at the State Energy/Environment Leadership Summit was intended to discuss net metering, the billing system that allows solar customers to sell their excess energy back to the utility companies at retail rates, which Nuzzo calls "crony carve outs" and utilities like Florida Power & Light call subsidies.
During the hour-long discussion, provided to the Herald/Times by the Energy and Policy Institute, the panelists presented the utility industry's case that rooftop solar owners do not pay their fair share of maintaining power lines and other equipment that make up the electric grid and their back up electricity is subsidized by non-solar customers. They argued that the costs are unfairly shifted from the wealthy to those who can least afford it.
The counter argument, made by solar proponents, was not part of the discussion. Solar advocates point to studies that show that rooftop solar adds more value to the electricity distribution system than it takes away because their investment offsets the need to build new power plants and pay for grid maintenance, lowering utility rates to all customers.
Florida is one of five states that do not allow a property owner to have a third-party installer put solar panels on their roof and sell the power back to them.
The amendment, which must receive 60 percent of the vote to pass in November, will leave that ban in place. However, if the ban were removed, the language in the amendment could discourage third party sales because it gives utility companies the right to impose new fees on all solar customers to compensate for the loss of revenue when solar customers don't buy their power, making solar sales and leasing less economical.