A Florida power company didn’t like a reporter’s comment. His consultants had him followed | Florida
VSConsultants working for America’s largest electric company secretly monitored a Jacksonville reporter and obtained a report containing his social security number and other sensitive personal information, leaked documents reveal.
The surveillance came after the reporter wrote critically about how Florida Power & Light (FPL) tried to influence city council members to approve his business plans. Text messages show an FPL cadre has been briefed of Florida Times-Union columnist Nate Monroe’s movements while vacationing in begging Florida in November 2019, an investigation by the Florida Times-Union, Orlando Sentinel and Floodlight revealed.
Almost a year later, in October 2020, the consultants also obtained a photo of Monroe and his then-girlfriend outside their Jacksonville-area apartment, according to recordings shared with reporters by an unnamed source. .
The FPL denies having authorized or having knowledge of the surveillance. But records show employees of Matrix LLC, an Alabama-based consulting firm employed by the utility, followed the reporter throughout his critical coverage of a failed $11 billion buyout of a small utility. Florida public.
In an interview with a group of Florida-based journalists in early June, Eric Silagy, the power company‘s CEO, denied that the company had asked consultants to spy on journalists.
“I never authorized or approved or participated in following you or any other reporters,” Silagy told Monroe and others.
FPL’s relationship with Matrix has come under scrutiny after reports by the Orlando Sentinel revealed that Matrix operatives orchestrated a campaign to promote spoiler candidates who hijacked votes from Democrats so Republicans could retain control of the Florida Senate. FPL denies having knowledge of or participating in this scheme.
Although surveillance of journalists is common in some parts of the world, it happens more frequently in the United States, said Ted Bridis, a journalism professor at the University of Florida. A former investigative editor of the Associated Press whose phone records were seized by the FBI a decade ago, Bridis said harassment of journalists was escalating, facilitated by a ‘new era of political division’ .
“The fact that this kind of behavior could be taking place in Florida, allegedly by people connected to the largest energy company, should shock the conscience,” he said.
FPL said a law firm reviewed its work with Matrix and found no evidence of wrongdoing by utility employees, but FPL declined to share the report or its findings.
Documents revealing the surveillance were sent to The Times-Union and shared with Orlando Sentinel and Floodlight. The documents include a series of text messages to FPL State Legislative Affairs Vice President Daniel Martell that show a seemingly coordinated effort to track Monroe while on vacation.
Monroe had frequently criticized FPL’s efforts to privatize and buy Jacksonville Electric Authority, a community-owned electric, water and sewage utility. FPL, which controls the territory surrounding Jacksonville, has long coveted utility.
FPL spokesman David Reuter said in an emailed statement that his company had “no digital record of these exchanges and cannot prove their veracity”. He argued that they might not be authentic, or might be incomplete, taken out of context or “manipulated to make FPL look bad”.
“Taken individually or collectively, none of the information in your possession demonstrates any wrongdoing on the part of FPL or our employees,” Reuters said.
Reuters did not point to specific details in the documents that he believed to be false. FPL has repeatedly accused journalists of unfairly covering the company.
FPL alleges the documents are given to reporters by Joe Perkins, who founded Matrix. Perkins is embroiled in a legal dispute with his company’s former CEO, Jeff Pitts, who left the company in December 2020, taking several employees and customers with him.
Perkins declined to say whether he was the source of the documents leaked to reporters, but verified that the recordings were legitimate. He confirmed that Matrix was able to locate the recordings on Pitts’ old laptop. Perkins blames Pitts and other “rogue” employees for the surveillance.
He denied ordering anyone to spy on Monroe.
“I didn’t know this had taken place until I saw the material on Jeff Pitts’ computer,” he said.
In a statement responding to questions from The Times-Union about the filings, Pitts’ attorney John Collins accused Perkins of “disclosing partial and misleading confidential client documents.”
“For years, Joe Perkins has directed and paid for the surveillance of individuals – in many cases, without the client’s knowledge or approval – and he often leveraged this information for whatever suited his needs, regardless of ethical boundaries,” Collins said. “It’s one of the many reasons Jeff left The Matrix.”
The documents, which were sent to the Times-Union from an unnamed source, show Matrix was monitoring Monroe’s activities on Nov. 9, 2019, when the Times-Union columnist was in Pensacola for a friend’s wedding.
That day, Monroe posted a photo on Twitter of himself and his girlfriend in front of a mural that prominently featured the town’s name – making it clear where he was. Hours later, after his alma mater Louisiana State University defeated rival University of Alabama in football, Monroe tweeted, “OK. It’s time to get drunk. According to the leaked text messages, which Perkins says were found on Pitts’ computer, someone from The Matrix sent a screenshot of the tweet to FPL’s Martell at 7:34 p.m. EST.
“Great,” Martell replied a minute later.
Some time later, the Matrix agent texted Martell, “He’s in an Uber.” The agent then added a frowning emoji. The text matches Monroe’s carpool receipt from that night.
Documents obtained by The Times-Union also included a photo taken of Monroe while walking his dog with his then-girlfriend near their apartment in the Jacksonville area. The photo, dated October 14, 2020, was taken days after Monroe published a column about how FPL the previous summer planned to direct donations to charities run by members of the Jacksonville City Council. These members should sign a JEA sale. The plan was never executed.
Another email dated October 24, 2019 between Matrix CEO Pitts and FPL employee Martell contained a full background report on Monroe containing sensitive personal information, including her social security number.
“Shocker, he’s Democratic and completely boring,” Pitts wrote of the columnist in the docs.
It’s unclear who was monitoring Monroe’s movements, how often, or what they were hoping to gather. But Matrix records previously obtained by the Orlando Sentinel show the company paid more than $10,000 in 2018 to Clear Capture Investigations, a private investigation firm in Gainesville that touts “political/corporate surveillance” as the one of his specialties.
The firm did not respond to a request for comment.
FPL argued that Matrix may have ordered the report for another client and said it had no record of receiving such a report.
“If Matrix sent such a report to the FPL, it was sent unsolicited,” Reuters said. “If we want to know more about a journalist, we check publicly available sources such as social media, the internet and other information readily available to any member of the public.”
Observing or photographing someone in a public place or collecting information about them is not illegal, said Clay Calvert, a law professor at UF.
“Bullying is the problem,” he said.
But Calvert said the surveillance would discourage few journalists from writing critical stories, and such behavior could inspire other journalists to rally behind one of their peers.
“It is clearly bad public relations to try to intimidate journalists,” he said.