This reporter confronted critics of powerful Florida companies. But she worked for political consultants on their payroll
Updated December 21, 2022 at 5:01 PM ET
NPR's David Folkenflik reported this story with Mario Ariza and Miranda Green of Floodlight, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates the powerful interests stalling climate action.
Television news producer Kristen Hentschel was doing precisely what journalists should do on a searing hot day in Stuart, Fla., in July 2018: She confronted a politician with unwelcome questions.
Microphone and ABC News business card in hand, Hentschel rushed up to a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives before a debate, the candidate recalls, and asked him about 20 dead gopher tortoises that were reportedly found at a nearby construction site. Florida designates the species as threatened.
As far as the candidate, Toby Overdorf, knew, there were no dead tortoises.
And he would have known. Overdorf, an environmental engineer, served as the wildlife consultant to the construction project. Visibly flustered, Overdorf told Hentschel on camera that he didn't know what she was talking about.
"Residents say they aren't buying it," Hentschel declared in the news-style video she later posted online.
A city investigation found no dead tortoises. In fact, it found no evidence at all that any of the reptiles had ever been present.
That wasn't the only surprise. Though Hentschel has done freelance work for ABC, she was not there for the network.
At the time, a political consulting firm called Matrix LLC had paid Hentschel at least $7,000, the firm's internal ledgers show. And Matrix billed two major companies for Hentschel's work, labeling the payments "for Florida Crystals, FPL." (Florida Crystals is a huge sugar conglomerate. FPL is shorthand for the giant utility Florida Power & Light.)
Both companies could have benefited from her efforts to undermine Overdorf and his promises to resolve environmental issues in the district he was vying to represent. Florida Power & Light has pushed back against efforts to bring solar panels to the Sunshine State, while runoff from the sugar industry is a major source of water pollution in Florida.
Floodlight and NPR have not been able to independently verify whether Florida Power & Light or Florida Crystals knew about Hentschel's video. Florida Power & Light declined to comment for this story. Florida Crystals' lawyer Joseph Klock says the company "was not involved in any way, nor was anyone acting on its behalf, in any negative attacks in any form, directly or indirectly."
"It was an attack ad against my livelihood, my family," Overdorf says. "And it was something that potentially could last far beyond my time running for office."
Overdorf still won his election to the Florida House.
A journalist's role in political dirty tricks
Interviews for this story and Matrix ledgers show Hentschel traded on her work for ABC News at least three times to trip up Florida politicians whose stances on environmental regulations cut against the interests of major Matrix clients. Internal Matrix financial records originally sent anonymously to the Orlando Sentinel and shared with Floodlight show that since 2016, the firm has paid Hentschel at least $14,350.
According to two people at ABC News with knowledge, Hentschel was not, in fact, reporting for ABC on any of those subjects. "If she was working on these stories, she was not authorized to cover them for ABC News," one of them said. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive network matters.
ABC News declined to comment for this story before its publication, although it confirmed that she still did work for the network.
After this story was published on Wednesday, ABC cut ties with Hentschel.
"Kristen Hentschel was a freelance daily hire who never worked for ABC News on the political stories referenced in the NPR article," the network said in a statement. "She does not currently work for ABC NEWS."
David Westin, president of ABC News from 1997 to 2010, says he never came across an instance in which a journalist for the network was simultaneously doing advocacy.
"It just goes to the very heart of why people no longer have the same confidence and trust in the news media as they once did," says Westin, now an anchor for Bloomberg TV. "They suspect this is going on anyway, and for it to actually go on confirms their worst suspicions."
In another instance, the former girlfriend of Southern Company's CEO, Tom Fanning, says Hentschel cozied up to her over the past year. Southern Company is a rival to Florida Power & Light. This August, Alabama news site AL.com reported that Matrix had previously paid a private investigator to spy on Fanning in the summer of 2017.
Hentschel did not return multiple detailed requests for comment.
Matrix's former CEO, Jeff Pitts, who hired Hentschel for the firm, declined comment.
Matrix's founder, Joe Perkins, disavows any knowledge of Hentschel's work for Matrix and says Pitts was acting as a "rogue" employee in Florida.
Pitts left Matrix to found a rival firm in late 2020, alleging in court papers that he quit Matrix over Perkins' "unethical business practices," including "ordering and directing the clandestine surveillance including that of top executives of his largest client, the Southern Company." Perkins blames Pitts for the surveillance.
Matrix and Pitts have since settled a lawsuit without any admission of wrongdoing.
After Pitts left Matrix, reporters from Floodlight and NPR obtained company records documenting Hentschel's work. This story also draws on other materials, including court records, and 14 interviews with people with direct knowledge of her activities.
In recent months, Matrix has also been accused of interfering in the workings of democracy in Alabama and Florida by seeking to influence ballot initiatives, running ghost candidates and offering a lucrative job to a public official if he resigned. As Floodlight and NPR have revealed, Matrix secretly maintained financial ties to a half-dozen political news sites and tried to ensure favorable coverage for clients.
A start in local news tripped up by a tabloid scandal
Hentschel began her journalism career with short stints at local TV newsrooms in Chico, Calif., Waco, Texas, and Knoxville, Tennessee.
"A lot of people think that the television business ... looks Hollywood-esque," Hentschel once told Baldwin Park Living, a Florida lifestyle magazine. "I made $8 an hour [at] my first job, laid on couches and had to move around literally every one to two years."
At those jobs, she covered crime, storms, traffic — mainstays of local news.
Her career foundered in 2011 when the National Enquirer disclosed a romantic relationship between her and a married man: Chris Hansen, the former host of NBC's To Catch a Predator.
Subsequent stints in Las Vegas, Seattle and Orlando, Fla., proved brief. "A double standard is an understatement as to what happens in this industry," Hentschel told RadarOnline.com in an interview about her relationship with Hansen. "The women get fired and the men keep going." Professionally, she had been using the name Kristyn Caddell, which endures on her Twitter account, but shifted to her family name, Kristen Hentschel, by late 2015.
Looking for work, Hentschel turns to Matrix
Hentschel's résumé eventually reached Pitts at Matrix. By the beginning of 2016, he had hired her.
Hentschel soon secured a second gig. In February 2016, she started as a freelance news producer for ABC News.
Hentschel primarily did work for Good Morning America. Among her assignments: helping with segments on NFL star Tom Brady and the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito, the young Florida woman who documented her cross-country trip on social media.
"Our setup for today... #lighting is everything," Hentschel once tweeted with a photograph of a TV reporting shoot. "Who's in the hot seat?"
The answer often proved to be people Pitts wanted her to confront.
A record of mixing business and pleasure
Pitts could be a charmer. He was known to cultivate a personal rapport with his corporate clients over sushi and steak dinners, favoring long meals with freely flowing red wine. In an email exchange with a vice president of the energy company NextEra, Pitts wrote, "Talk tomorrow but miss you." She wrote back that his note was a nice surprise. "You said [to] be more open," Pitts replied.
Pitts mixed business with romance, Matrix financial records show. Over the course of the last decade, Pitts paid his then-wife more than $10,000 for work for Matrix, according to copies of the firm's invoices reflecting payments to her personal company. She had previously been employed at Alabama Power, one of Matrix's oldest clients, according to press clippings and two associates.
Matrix also paid Pitts' ongoing romantic partner, Apryl Marie Fogel, a conservative radio-show host, nearly $150,000 over several years. Fogel runs the conservative news site Alabama Today, which published articles showcasing Matrix clients in a favorable light.
On a recent episode of her radio show, Fogel compared her relationship with Pitts to that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, the pro-Trump activist Ginni Thomas.
"You check it at the door," Fogel says. "You may be somewhat, in a fuzzy way, aware of what the other person is doing. And you want them to be successful, but it doesn't mean that you two—that everything is running in lockstep."
Shortly after Hentschel started working for Pitts at Matrix, the two began an affair, associates say, though it is not clear how long it lasted. Hentschel bought a home close to Pitts' apartment in West Palm Beach, Florida, public records show.
A mayor promotes residential solar panels in the Sunshine State
Hentschel called Phil Stoddard, then the mayor of South Miami, in August 2018. He says she identified herself as an ABC reporter and asked him about an upcoming press conference likely to bring unflattering publicity. A lawsuit had been filed by parents of a teenager who was hospitalized years earlier after attending a party thrown by Stoddard's teenage daughter. (The suit was ultimately settled.)
The press conference turned out to be a sham. It had been orchestrated by Joe Carrillo, a private detective, and Dan Newman, a political operative with financial links to Matrix, according to Matrix documents and a copy of the press release obtained by Floodlight and NPR.
Matrix paid Hentschel $2,000 a few weeks later for what was itemized as a "Miami shoot," a Matrix ledger shows.
The interest in Stoddard, a biologist, seems easy to discern. Stoddard had clashed with Florida Power & Light over transmission lines, a nuclear power plant and policies on residential solar panels.
Again, Florida Power & Light declined to comment for this story.
Internal Matrix emails between Newman, the political operative, and Pitts, the firm's then-CEO, show it hired a private detective to investigate Stoddard's personal life. The Orlando Sentinel reported that Matrix-linked nonprofits spent six figures trying to knock him out of office. Perkins denied knowledge of these activities.
On Sept. 26, Hentschel showed up with a videographer to a city council meeting.
"I thought, 'No good's gonna come of this,'" Stoddard recalls. He shut down her requests for comment at the council meeting. He continued battling Florida Power & Light even after he left office in 2020.
ABC News was told of Hentschel's other activities in 2020
There is evidence that ABC News was first told two years ago that Hentschel inappropriately invoked her network ties in conducting work that had nothing to do with ABC News.
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Florida, a conservative Republican, has established a record as an advocate of strengthening water quality in Lake Okeechobee, the state's largest freshwater lake. He has introduced four pieces of legislation to address toxic algal blooms there.
His work puts him at odds with Florida's powerful sugar interest, Florida Crystals. Okeechobee is kept artificially full for that industry and other corporate use. Mast's bills could ultimately cut into their profits.
"They'll do anything that they can to hold on to that grip of controlling water in the state of Florida," Mast says. "And I'm probably the number one person that goes against them."
In the heat of the 2020 election season, Hentschel chased down Mast at a fundraiser featuring then-President Donald Trump. She told Mast's aides she wanted to ask him about messages he wrote nearly a decade earlier, before entering politics. He had joked about rape and sex with teenagers in Facebook posts to a friend. They had just surfaced publicly, and he had apologized. The aides didn't bite.
The conservative Florida news site The Capitolist called Mast's proposals extreme and urged readers to vote for his Democratic opponent. Matrix had previously funneled The Capitolist nearly $200,000 from Florida Power & Light, the firm's invoices show. Matrix founder Perkins denied Matrix paid The Capitolist and said the company "was unaware of any financial relationships between" The Capitolist "and any Matrix client."
That September, Hentschel rang the doorbell at Mast's home in a gated community and told Mast's wife she was reporting for ABC, even handing over a business card citing the network, according to Mast's accounts in an interview for this story and in a trespassing complaint he filed with police.
A senior aide to Mast shot off an email to ABC. Its political director, Rick Klein, replied that Hentschel was not there for the network.
Election Day was two months away. In a video he posted on Facebook, Mast denounced his Democratic opponent for sending Hentschel to his door. "I want to talk about something that frankly is just BS," Mast said.
Mast now says he believes Hentschel sought to intimidate him on behalf of the sugar company and Matrix client Florida Crystals — an allegation the company rejected.
Floodlight and NPR have not been able to independently pin down whether Hentschel's pursuit of Mast was on behalf of Florida Crystals, Matrix, Pitts or any of the consulting firm's other clients.
Again, Florida Crystals' lawyer Klock said the company "was not involved in any way," but did not comment on whether it is a client of Matrix.
Klock himself was a minor figure in a Matrix scandal involving a Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners race revealed by the Miami Herald. He did not respond to requests for comment on that link.
Mast won his election. But he can still barely conceal his fury.
"There's an appropriate way to affect official duties of a representative in an official policy," Mast says. "Somebody came to threaten my family. That's very serious to me. It's a very serious line that was crossed."
Hentschel's work stretched beyond Florida politicians and news conferences.
This past June, fitness instructor Kim Tanaka was sitting poolside at an upscale hotel in Atlanta when a reporter for Bloomberg News called with a startling question: Did Tanaka know that she had been spied on five years prior?
Tanaka's boyfriend during that period was Tom Fanning, the CEO of energy giant Southern Company — a direct competitor of Florida Power & Light. The couple broke up in late 2017.
The reporter, Josh Saul, laid out the material he'd obtained in a leaked Matrix dossier, which included private information about her, Tanaka recalls.
"It made me feel mad. Definitely violated. And anxious," Tanaka says.
Bloomberg never published a story. A private investigator confirmed to AL.com this year that he had surveilled Tanaka and Fanning five years ago for Matrix. (Matrix founder Perkins says then-CEO Pitts ordered the operation without his knowledge. Pitts says Perkins knew.)
But there was another shocker in the dossier. It didn't just contain old information pertaining to Tanaka — it contained recent and sensitive information about Fanning's wife, whom he married after breaking up with Tanaka. To Tanaka, it meant the spying had continued as recently as this year.
A friend was sitting alongside Tanaka in June as she took Saul's call: Kristen Hentschel.
In late 2021, Hentschel had hired Tanaka at an Atlanta gym to be her personal trainer, even though there's no record of Hentschel living in Georgia. The two became close, even vacationing together.
Another former Matrix operative, Paul Hamrick, had also hired Tanaka as his trainer the same week as Hentschel, according to emails reviewed by Floodlight and NPR. Tanaka says she told Hentschel and Hamrick private details found in the dossier and doesn't know if they or someone else spied on her. Hentschel remains a good friend, Tanaka says, and a lot of fun.
Floodlight and NPR have not been able to independently verify whether Hentschel or Hamrick were hired by Pitts or Pitts' new firm to monitor Tanaka or whether they monitored Tanaka. In a note sent this summer to an associate, Hentschel wrote she was still working for Pitts.
A front group and a spurious charge
While Hentschel was questioning Toby Overdorf about gopher tortoises in Stuart, Fla., the Matrix-backed news site The Capitolist was also writing critical articles accusing Overdorf of being a hypocrite. The site said his environmentalism masked his financial reliance on "numerous sugar daddies and mommies in the agriculture business."
Hentschel posted her segments on Overdorf to the website of the Alabama-based Center for Sustainability and Conservation. She is also listed as the organization's media contact. Matrix had paid the center at least $55,000 through a related business, according to the consulting firm's ledgers.
The organization presented itself on Facebook as an environmental nonprofit. But Floodlight and NPR could find no record of a nonprofit incorporated under that name anywhere. A for-profit company with that name exists in Alabama, however.
The center's web presence was deleted after Floodlight and NPR contacted the center's founder for comment. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
This fall, Overdorf won his third consecutive race. He says people still dredge up the accusations — including in October in a local anti-development Facebook page. No one has identified the person who lodged the original baseless complaint about tortoises that Hentschel highlighted.
"Even though it is 1,000% entirely, completely false, it sticks," Overdorf says. "It is oil that unfortunately doesn't leave you."
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