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Shining a light on how FPL operated behind the scenes, hoping to dim opponents

The Miami Herald
Solar array floats out as FPL and Miami-Dade County launched a half-acre 402-panel floating solar array generating 160 kilowatts of power into the Blue Lagoon adjacent to Miami International Airport on Tuesday, January 28, 2020.

New documents show how one of the largest companies in Florida secretly worked against political opponents. Power giant Florida Power and Light said it is confident it did nothing illegal in trying to shape public policy and press coverage.

Florida Power and Light powers much of Florida. It also is a very powerful voice in politics.

And just how powerful that voice is has come to light in a lawsuit involving a political consulting firm used by the utility giant.

From wanting to make "life a living hell" for a Democratic state senator to directly steering media coverage, FPL is under new scrutiny thanks to documents shared with Florida journalists.

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Anonymous email messages and an envelope with no return address were shared with Mario Alejandro Ariza of environmental news collaborative Floodlight and Annie Martin of the Orlando Sentinel. The documents and details were compared to public records such as business registrations and publicly available email addresses. The reporters also authenticated some of the material sent to them with the owner of political consulting firm Matrix, which did work for FPL.

Initially that work included voter analysis and opinion polling, "basically figuring out how people felt about certain issues," said Martin. "But the records point to a different story."

Martin and Ariza reported that in 2019, FPL President Eric Silagy emailed FPL vice presidents and said to make "life a living hell ... seriously" for then-Democratic state Senator José Javier Rodriguez.

At the time, Rodriguez proposed legislation that would have allowed landlords to use rooftop solar plans to generate electricity and sell that power to tenants. That could have cut FPL out from supplying power to those households.

Rodriguez narrowly lost re-election in 2020. A ghost candidate with the same last name admitted to accepting a bribe to appear on the ballot. The Orlando Sentinel reported that political consulting firm Matrix asked a contractor to draft a plan to recruit a a Florida House representative to challenge Rodriguez. People associated with Matrix then spent heavily prompting the campaign of the similarly named candidate who received more than 6,000 votes. Rodriguez lost his race by 32 votes. FPL has denied any knowledge of the scheme.

We believe our company and our employees have acted legally in our business dealings.
FPL Chief Communications Officer David Reuter

In a statement to The Florida Roundup, FPL said it thinks the documents were leaked to gain leverage in a legal dispute between the founder of Matrix and a former executive. The utility described Matrix founder Joe Perkins as someone who "has a federal record of making false statements, which calls into question the credibility of these documents."

In 1992, the Federal Elections Commission fined Perkins $5,000 over campaign contributions made in 1985.

The statement from FPL Chief Communications Officer David Reuter continued. "From the moment we learned about these allegations, we undertook a thorough investigation which found no evidence of illegal wrongdoing by FPL or any of our employees. We believe our company and our employees have acted legally in our business dealings and these documents provide both an inaccurate and misleading representation of our actions.”

"They have not provided us with evidence or any other kind of records that would show the rest of the picture," said Martin. "They've said these records provide an incomplete and misleading picture. Well, OK. What's the rest of the story, then? And they're not disputing the authenticity of these records."

There has been little state government reaction to the material published this week focused on the power and influence of FPL. The state agency that regulates public utilities is the Public Services Commission.

"The Public Service Commission has said that they took a look at the spending that FPL was doing with its consultants during the previous rate case, which is when they examined how much the utility gets to charge," said Ariza. "Those reports are sometimes filed under trade secret or they're not shared with the public."

Congresswoman Kathy Castor has asked the federal government to look into FPL's political spending. The Tampa-area Democrat wants the Department of Justice to investigate what she called "very troubling" news reports.

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In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.