Florida Power & Light Execs Worked Closely with Consultants Behind ‘Ghost’ Candidate Scheme, Records Reveal
ORLANDO, 2 DECEMBER (Orlando Sentinel)
Top executives at utility giant Florida Power & Light worked closely with the political consultants who orchestrated a scheme to promote spoiler candidates in three key state Senate elections last year, according to documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.
The records also show FPL has donated more than $10 million in recent years to other dark-money nonprofits controlled by some of the same consultants — and FPL CEO and President Eric Silagy has personally coordinated with those consultants on campaign contributions made through their nonprofits.
In a statement, FPL spokesperson David P. Reuter denied the company had any role in the ghost candidate scheme.
“Neither FPL nor our employees provided funding, or asked any third party to provide funding on its behalf, to Grow United in support of Florida state-level political campaigns during the 2020 election cycle,” he said. “Any report or suggestion that we had involvement in, financially supported or directed others to support any ‘ghost’ candidates during the 2020 election cycle is patently false, and we have found absolutely no evidence of any legal wrongdoing by FPL or its employees.”
Money from Grow United was used to promote independent candidates in three Senate races — District 9 in Central Florida and South Florida’s districts 37 and 39 — in an apparent effort to siphon votes from the Democratic candidates and help Republicans retain control of the 40-member Florida Senate.
An organization with strong ties to Associated Industries of Florida gave $1.15 million to dark-money nonprofit Grow United last year.
That investigation and the Sentinel’s reporting have revealed extensive ties between the consultants behind the scheme and powerful business interests in Florida — but the new records show how closely those consultants were working with FPL specifically.
The cache of new documents was anonymously delivered to the Sentinel last week, including checks, bank statements, emails, text messages, invoices, internal ledgers and more covering a roughly four-year period between 2016 and 2020, all of which were apparently unearthed during an internal investigation by a former FPL contractor.
The records — along with a summary of the internal Matrix investigation, which said it had identified “potential unlawful conduct” — were sent in early November to James “Jim” Robo, the chairman of Florida Power & Light’s parent company, NextEra Energy Inc. The Sentinel was also sent a partially redacted copy of the investigative summary.
A summary of an internal investigation by Alabama firm Matrix LLC was sent in early November to James “Jim” Robo, the chairman of Florida Power & Light’s parent company, NextEra Energy Inc. It accused several senior FPL executives of potentially illegal activities.
The Sentinel independently corroborated dozens of details in the records — matching things such as bank routing numbers, employer identification numbers, campaign contributions, transfers between nonprofits, names and job titles, cell phone numbers, email addresses and transaction dates. Many of the details are available in public records, though some are not and were confirmed by Sentinel reporting.
Silagy did not respond to a request for comment. The Sentinel sent detailed questions to him and other FPL executives about key facts and figures revealed in the documents, which Reuter’s statement did not dispute.
“The leaking of documents and communications to the media was done in a manner that provides an incomplete picture of actual events and to purposely mislead the public and disparage our company and our employees,” he said. “We believe that a former consultant to our company, who is in a legal dispute with ex-employees, leaked these documents and communications in an effort to gain personal financial leverage.”
Joe Perkins, the owner of Matrix LLC, said he did not leak the records to the Sentinel. Perkins accused FPL of repeating what he called the “false, slanderous and defamatory” claims of extortion made by his former CEO.
“The only sources to whom I have personally sent privileged information are those to whom I was contractually obligated to provide it,” Perkins said.
FPL Invoiced for Grow United Costs
Florida Power & Light is the largest electric utility in the state, serving more than 11 million people across vast swaths of Florida. It is a regulated monopoly — which means that the company’s profits can hinge on decisions made by elected and appointed officials in Tallahassee.
The Florida Senate is particularly important to the utility’s fortunes. That’s because the Senate must confirm appointments the governor makes to the Public Service Commission — a body that recently voted to let FPL raise rates by nearly $5 billion over the next four years.
FPL has for years been one of Florida’s biggest spenders on public campaign contributions and lobbying. But the records obtained by the Sentinel show the company also spends millions of dollars behind the scenes supporting seemingly disconnected groups that are also used to influence elections and public policy.
And Grow United appears to have been created with FPL in mind.
For instance, the records show Grow United was set up and controlled by consultants who were working for Matrix at the time — including then-CEO Jeff Pitts and April Odom, whose brother was listed as Grow United’s chairman in its public filings.
Documents from an internal investigation by Matrix LLC show the Alabama consulting firm billed Florida Power & Light to cover the filing fees to form Grow United Inc., the dark-money entity at the center of Florida’s “ghost” candidate scandal.
Public records show that Grow United was incorporated in Delaware on July 24, 2019. And an internal ledger maintained by Matrix’s bookkeeper shows a $238 invoice dated Aug. 7, 2019, for “Grow United SOS Fees” — an apparent reference to the corporate filing fees charged by the Delaware Secretary of State.
The same entry lists FPL as the client to be billed for the invoice.
In addition, the records show on June 29, 2020, Odom emailed a $12,813.54 invoice to another now-former Matrix employee for expenses that included traveling to Colorado to update the nonprofit’s mailbox at a UPS Store in Denver.
The subject line of the email was, “FPL Expenses for Grow United c4.”
Neither Pitts nor Odom responded to requests for comment.
Pitts and Odom left Matrix at the end of 2020 and now work at a Florida-based consulting firm called Canopy Partners. The two firms are now in a legal battle in both Florida and Alabama concerning whether the ex-Matrix staffers conspired with a client — unnamed in court filings, but which matches the description of NextEra Energy — to divert fees. Canopy denies any wrongdoing.
Invoices show that Alabama-based Matrix LLC was billed Florida Power & Light for millions in the days before the consulting firm began moving money through Grow United Inc., the dark-money nonprofit central to the “ghost” candidate scheme.
"The Eagle Has Landed"
None of the records sent to the Sentinel show FPL donating money directly to Grow United.
But they do show that consultants who were controlling Grow United billed FPL for millions of dollars shortly before they started moving money through it in September of last year.
For instance, on Sept. 2, 2020, Pitts emailed a $1 million invoice to an FPL executive through a separate company he had set up called TMP Interactive. The invoice says it is for “consulting, research and digital” regarding “energy and regulatory issues.”
Over the next two weeks, Matrix itself invoiced FPL twice for a combined $2.25 million for “initiative consulting and research” and $250,000 for “Miami Dade Consulting & Research.”
Shortly after those invoices to FPL, the records show that Matrix also wired nearly $2 million to a nonprofit called “People Over Profits” — which is one of the only known donors to Grow United so far.
Representatives for People Over Profits, which is run by former Democratic state Rep. Sean Shaw, did not respond to requests for comment.
In addition, the records include a Sept. 12, 2020, text message to Pitts and another now-former Matrix employee, Abbie MacIver, from Dan Newman, a Florida Democratic Party fundraiser who has publicly acknowledged raising hundreds of thousands of dollars into Grow United.
In the text, Newman sent Pitts and MacIver a picture of a $1.25 million check from FPL to his consulting company, ENH Industries, along with the message, “The eagle has landed.”
Newman this week declined to say why FPL paid his company $1.25 million or whether any of that money was subsequently passed on to Grow United.
In a Sept. 12, 2020, text to a pair of Matrix LLC employees, Democratic consultant Dan Newman sent a picture of a $1.25 million check from Florida Power & Light to his consulting company, ENH Industries, along with the message, “The Eagle has landed.”
‘Ghost’ money from AIF-linked group?
Though the independent candidates who ran in Senate Districts 9, 37 and 39 did no campaigning themselves, they were promoted by $550,000 in nearly identical advertising designed by Republican strategists in Tallahassee and worded to appeal to Democratic-leaning voters.
The advertisements were paid for by two political committees that both got all of their money from Grow United.
And the records sent to the Sentinel suggest Grow United got that money from “Let’s Preserve the American Dream” — a nonprofit run by a longtime political advisor to the business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida from an office inside AIF’s Tallahassee headquarters.
FPL is one of AIF’s biggest members.
The records include a Sept. 29, 2020, email in which Let’s Preserve the American Dream executive director Ryan Tyson instructed a CPA and banker to wire $600,000 to Grow United.
“Team — I need to make a contribution via wire from LPAD in the amount of $600,000 to Grow United. The w9 is attached and the banking information is below,” Tyson wrote.
The banking information provided by Tyson included a routing number for Grow United that matched separate bank records obtained by Miami-Dade investigators as part of their criminal investigation. And the tax document includes an employer identification number for Grow United that matched the EIN provided to the Sentinel by two sources earlier this year.
Frank Artiles and Alex Alvarado, key figures in the “ghost” candidate scandal, worked together through a political nonprofit, records show.
Later that day, after the money was wired, Tyson emailed confirmation to Pitts, Odom and MacIver.
Three days later, Grow United sent a combined $550,000 to the two political committees that paid for the advertisements for the ghost candidates. “Alex, can you confirm wires to each account?” Odom wrote in a subsequent text message to Alex Alvarado, the Tallahassee political consultant who controlled the two political committees
Records obtained as part of the Miami investigation show Alvarado does work for Tyson and Let’s Preserve the American Dream. The political committees were also run out of AIF’s headquarters in Tallahassee. And a portion of the money, $26,500, was ultimately paid to a company Tyson owns as a “referral fee,” according to testimony in the investigation.
Tyson did not respond to requests for comment.
"Charge Full Steam Ahead"
The records also show Pitts and Tyson were in communication with FPL lobbyists about strategy in the three Senate races.
On Sept. 24 — five days before Let’s Preserve the American Dream wired $600,000 to Grow United — Tyson texted the results of a poll showing a very close race in the Senate District 37 race to a group that included Pitts, MacIver and two FPL lobbyists: Vice President of State Government Affairs John Holley and Vice President of State Legislative Affairs Danny Martell.
The poll showed incumbent Democrat Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez and Republican challenger Ileana Garcia tied at 32.9 percent — with independent candidate Alex Rodriguez, who had not done any campaigning of his own, at 4.4 percent.
The discussion broadened to include the other two Senate races in the ghost-candidate controversy: District 9, which covers Seminole County and part of Volusia, and District 39 in Miami.
Tyson wrote to the group that “Bainter” — an apparent reference to Pat Bainter, whose political consulting firm, Data Targeting Inc., was running GOP campaigns for Senate Republican leadership — had asked Tyson to stop polling in the three battleground races “because of fear of phone fatigue.”
Text messages revealed by a Matrix LLC internal investigation show that the political consultants involved in promoting “ghost” candidates in three key state Senate races discussed strategy in those same races with top Florida Power & Light lobbyists, including Vice President of State Government Affairs John Holley.
“I can see that,” Holley responded. “Here’s what I think. We are going to charge full speed ahead in all those seats. So polling really doesn’t matter unless it tells us what’s working and what’s not.”
The texts suggest the group wanted Republicans to win all three races.
“Whoa!!” Holley wrote in response to the poll showing Garcia tied in District 37. “She’s working her [expletive] off from what I’m hearing also.”
Later in the thread, Tyson wrote, “I’m so nervous for Jason” — a reference to Jason Brodeur, the Republican candidate in District 9.
“Me too,” Holley responded.
“Jason’s only hope right now is out of his hands 1) that they run out of money and 2) that the bottom falls out on their turnout,” Tyson wrote, apparently referring to Brodeur’s opponent, Democrat Patricia Sigman.
“She doesn’t have much on her and she’s pretty boring,” Holley responded.
Holley did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did Martell or MacIver, who were also on the thread.
The Republican candidates ended up winning all three races. In the Senate District 37, Garcia defeated Jose Javier Rodriguez by just 32 votes — with independent candidate Alex Rodriguez drawing more than 6,000 votes.
No one else has been accused of any wrongdoing but Miami prosecutors say their investigation is ongoing and extends beyond the charges filed against Artiles, though its full scope is unclear. They have subpoenaed bank records related to Grow United, among many other documents.
Alex Rodriguez, who prosecutors say was paid to run in a key state Senate race, pleaded guilty and apologized, agreeing to testify against Frank Artiles.
FPL Money Also Involved in '18 Race
And the records sent to the Sentinel show that both the former Matrix employees and FPL money were deeply involved in that race, too.
For instance, the records obtained by the Sentinel include an internal ledger for a nonprofit called “Mothers for Moderation.” That ledger shows FPL donated $14.15 million to Mothers for Moderation in 2018, representing nearly all of the money the dark-money group raised that year.
The internal records — and corresponding public records — show that Mothers for Moderation paid for advertisements attacking the frontrunner in the Democratic primary in the Senate District 8 race.
The records also show that another entity controlled by the same consultants, which they associated with FPL in an internal ledger, funded a group that paid for advertisements supporting an independent candidate in the general election who was working with Republican strategists and publicly attacked the Democratic candidate in the race.
Republican Sen. Keith Perry ended up winning that race by about 2,200 votes; the independent, Charles Goston, received more than 4,300 votes.
The internal ledger for Mothers for Moderation — which is accompanied by copies of corresponding checks, monthly bank statements and letters to Silagy soliciting millions from FPL — shows 10 deposits in 2018, six of which are from FPL. The deposits total $15,335,000.
Many of the Mothers for Moderation checks were signed by Odom, even though — as with Grow United — the name of one of Odom’s siblings was the only name to appear in the organization’s public records.
A November 2018 letter from the dark-money nonprofit Mothers for Moderation, one of several soliciting millions from Florida Power & Light via its CEO, Eric Silagy. Records show FPL donated $14.15 million to Mothers for Moderation in 2018, nearly all of the money the dark-money group raised that year.
Contributions Moved Through Nonprofits
The records sent to the Sentinel show how dark-money contributions get guided to specific destinations.
For instance, on Oct. 6, 2020 — after Grow United had spent the money that would ultimately fund the ghost candidate campaign — Dan Newman, the Democratic fundraiser who was also using Grow United, emailed Pitts and MacIver.
“I have raised $657,500 into GROW,” Newman wrote. “Please help me raise the following amounts.”
Newman included in the email a spreadsheet identifying nearly a dozen political committees to which he wanted Grow United to send money, alongside the exact amount he wanted sent to each. All of the political committees later reported corresponding contributions in their public campaign finance filings.
The records include a similar exchange in 2018 between Pitts and Silagy, the FPL CEO.
Emails show Eric Silagy, the CEO and President of Florida Power & Light, working with then-Matrix LLC CEO to guide a donation that was intended to support Lauren Baer, a Democrat who was challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast in a Treasure Coast-based congressional district.
On Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, Silagy, using a personal Yahoo email account, forwarded Pitts instructions on how to donate to “House Majority PAC,” a political action committee that supports Democratic candidates for U.S. Congress.
In the underlying message, Sarah Russell, an employee of House Majority PAC, had assured Silagy the contribution would be used to support Lauren Baer, a Democrat who was challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast in a Treasure Coast-based congressional district.
In the forward to Pitts, Silagy wrote, “See below. Can you coordinate? Just want to make sure they don’t triangulate this donation to others we have done.”
Pitts responded on Saturday to say that he would call Silagy on Monday. It’s unclear if they wound up speaking by phone, but Pitts texted Silagy that day, writing in part, “Advancement for Integrity and Justice will be supporting the House Majority PAC. I will contact Sarah and let her know.”
The following day, House Majority PAC reported a $25,000 donation from a nonprofit called Center for Advancement of Integrity and Justice.