Leaked: US power companies secretly spending millions to protect profits and fight clean energy – The Guardian

by | Jul 27, 2022 | Energy

Leaked: US power companies secretly spending millions to protect profits and fight clean energy Energy poles by Florida Power and Light from Turkey Point nuclear generating station in Miami, Florida. Photograph: Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 5+/AlamyEnergy poles by Florida Power and Light from Turkey Point nuclear generating station in Miami, Florida. Photograph: Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 5+/AlamyOne industry consulting firm has influenced politics across Florida, Alabama and at least six other states The CEO of the biggest power company in the US had a problem. A Democratic state senator was proposing a law that could cut into Florida Power & Light’s (FPL) profits. Landlords would be able to sell cheap rooftop solar power directly to their tenants – bypassing FPL and its monopoly on electricity.“I want you to make his life a living hell … seriously,” FPL’s CEO Eric Silagy wrote in a 2019 email to two of his vice-presidents about state Senator José Javier Rodríguez, who proposed the legislation.Map showing route taken by Matrix LLC to oust Jose Javier Rodriguez from office.Within minutes, one of them forwarded the directive to the CEO of Matrix, LLC, a powerful but little-known political consulting firm that has operated behind the scenes in at least eight states.Rodríguez was ousted from office in the next election. Matrix employees spent heavily on political advertisements for a candidate with the same last name as Rodríguez, who split the vote. That candidate later admitted he was bribed to run.Hundreds of pages of internal documents – which are only coming to light now because Matrix’s founders are locked in an epic feud – detail the firm’s secret work to help power companies like FPL protect their profits and fight the transition to cleaner forms of energy.The Matrix saga illustrates the political obstacles policymakers and experts face as they attempt to cut climate pollution from the power sector, one of the biggest greenhouse gas contributors in the US.The ongoing clash between Matrix’s founder Joe Perkins, 72, and former CEO Jeff Pitts, 51, is exposing the firm’s decades of extensive influence peddling on behalf of utility clients. The issue extends to several states. Records obtained by Floodlight and the Orlando Sentinel show that Matrix consulted for FPL, as well as another Florida company, Gulf Power, and Alabama Power. Matrix affiliated groups have also worked to advance power companies’ interests in Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and in front of the Environmental Protection Agency, public records show.floodlight logoIn Florida, Matrix’s work touched almost every level of politics, from influencing local mayoral and county commission elections to combating attempts to reshape the state constitution. In each of those cases, Matrix was working against politicians or policies fighting to curb the climate crisis by encouraging renewable power.Matrix employees had a Jacksonville journalist spied on after he wrote critically about FPL. And in 2020, Matrix even harnessed the power of the press for itself, when its employees acquired control of The Capitolist, a Tallahassee-based political news site which it used for favorable coverage, leaked records show.“I find this to be horrifying and undemocratic,” said Gianna Trocino Bonner, former chief legislative aide for Rodríguez, after reviewing some of the leaked documents. “It’s unfortunate that our process allows for something like this to exist without accountability.”Big power companies operate as monopolies with captive customers in much of the south-east US. They are supposed to be closely regulated, but their profits and unchecked political spending makes them some of the most powerful entities in a state.Howard Crystal, an attorney for the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, said that US utilities are allowed monopoly power “because they are supposed to expand the public interest.“[But] now we have this incredible corruption and a reversal of that because they are using their advantage to hang on to power and undermine democracy,” he said.So far, there have been two criminal investigations into the campaign against Rodríguez and another Democratic state senate candidate, leading to charges against five people, though authorities have not accused Matrix or FPL of wrongdoing. Documents shared by an anonymous source show Silagy directing his team to make life hell for Florida senator José Javier Rodríguez. Photograph: Orlando Sentinel/FloodlightMatrix’s principal, Perkins, says he discovered only after Pitts left the firm that he and other now-former employees had been conducting “shadow activities and operations” dating back to 2016. He is suing Pitts in Alabama for fraud and conspiracy.“For many years and without my knowledge or approval, Pitts abused his power and position to benefit himself and his cronies,” Perkins said in a statement. “Upon realizing the extent of Pitts’s shadow operations and abuses of power, we filed our lawsuit against Pitts and those few rogue employees.”Pitts, who left Matrix in December 2020 to start his own firm, Canopy Partners, did not respond to a request for comment by deadline. He is also suing Perkins, alleging defamation and extortion. A spokesperson for FPL said it stopped working with Canopy in late 2021.FPL’s CEO Silagy in a recent interview denied knowing about or participating in the scheme against Rodríguez but said that Matrix had done “good work” for his company. Records show FPL trusted Matrix operatives with millions, including giving $14m to a single Matrix-run nonprofit in 2018 alone. Silagy said the email in which he told his team to make Rodríguez’s life “a living hell” was “a poor choice of words”.Digging for dirtIn Florida, FPL and Matrix demonstrated how a utility and its consultants can work in tandem to resist clean energy reforms. FPL deployed lobbyists to the capital, while Matrix hired private investigators to dig for dirt and had operatives funnel dark money and order attack ads.Few examples are clearer than the case of South Miami. When the small south Florida city’s mayor helped pass an ordinance in 2017 mandating rooftop solar panels on new construction, a network of 10 FPL-aligned operatives mobilized to ensure his ouster. A dark money group associated with Matrix LLC mailed attack ads against South Miami mayor Philip Stoddard to area residents. Photograph: Orlando SentinelThe team decided an effort to repeal the ordinance would probably fail. So they opted instead for “Mayor Stoddard’s electoral defeat and changing the makeup of the board”, according to a 2018 memo from Dan Newman, a Matrix contractor who was similarly involved in the campaign against Rodríguez.Along with a private investigator, the group delved into Stoddard’s past for episodes to weaponize against him, such as a South Miami commissioner’s claim on Facebook that Stoddard had forcibly kissed her. Documents show Matrix operatives arranged for the commissioner to record a robocall in which she called Stoddard “a creep”. Pitts at the time forwarded a draft of the script to two FPL executives. Newman in his memo also took credit for a Miami Herald story about the allegation.‘A moral imperative’: how southern ministers are trying to change minds about the climate crisisRead moreMeanwhile, Matrix-led non-profits funded a blizzard of ads against Stoddard, accusing him of using public money for “vendettas” and placing him alongside infamous sex offenders Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein.The plan ultimately failed, and Stoddard was re-elected. He has denied the allegations.“An organization that acts like a mafia should be treated like one,” Stoddard said.In a statement, Newman acknowledged managing the campaign against Stoddard and hiring a private investigator to look into the former mayor’s personal life. He said what he found was “deeply disturbing”.FPL did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.Matrix’s influence was felt on matters small and large, from Stoddard’s city of less than 12,000 to statewide fights over the Florida constitution. In 2019, when the electric utility industry was up in arms about a constitutional amendment to open up competition in Florida’s energy market, a Matrix-linked non-profit poured more than $10m into groups fighting it.Matrix also exerted political influence through the press, with its operatives acquiring control of a Tallahassee-based politics news site, The Capitolist. That gave Matrix consultants and FPL executives input on Capitolist stories.graphic showing acquisition flow of The CapitolistThe site’s publisher, Brian Burgess, a former top spokesperson for past Florida governor Rick Scott, also suggested in emails that Matrix should lure prominent Florida journalists to a new site or buy local papers owned by media giant Gannett Company and then lay off most of the “clown reporters” to “inject content” into publications without anyone knowing who was “pulling the strings”. That proposal was forwarded to Silagy at FPL but never came to fruition.Burgess said he “never pitched nor solicited feedback from FPL executives on any story or business venture”, and FPL spokesperson Chris McGrath said acquiring a news organization would not have made sense as a business deal for FPL.Headquartered in Montgomery, Matrix has been described there as “the closest thing Alabama politics has to a non-governmental secret agency”.Perkins and Pitts worked together for more than 25 years, expanding the firm into a national operation with dozens of clients in myriad industries. But wherever the pair went, indictments often followed.An Alabama governor the company worked for was convicted of federal felony corruption charges. A Birmingham mayor who employed Matrix got 15 years for bribery, conspiracy and fraud. And a former regional administrator for the EPA who did business with Pitts pleaded guilty to …

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