A Florida power company didn’t like a journalist’s commentary. Its consultants had him followed

Consultants for Florida Power & Light, the largest electric utility in the US, conducted surveillance on a Jacksonville journalist

A Florida power company didn’t like a journalist’s commentary. Its consultants had him followed
Images of Nate Monroe, a Florida Times-Union journalist, and his partner were among the internal records shared anonymously with journalists. The two were not aware they were being photographed. (Florida Times-Union)

Published in the Guardian, the Orlando Sentinel

Consultants working for America’s largest power company covertly monitored a Jacksonville, Florida journalist and obtained a report containing his Social Security number and other sensitive personal information, leaked documents reveal.

The surveillance happened after the journalist wrote critically about how Florida Power & Light tried to sway city council members to sign off on its business plans. Text messages show an FPL executive was kept abreast of Florida Times-Union columnist Nate Monroe's movements while he was on vacation in the Florida panhandle in November 2019, an investigation by the Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel and Floodlight has found.

Nearly a year later in October 2020, the consultants also obtained a photograph of Monroe and his girlfriend at the time outside their Jacksonville-area apartment, according to records shared with reporters by an anonymous source.

FPL denies that it authorized or knew about the surveillance. But the records show employees of Matrix LLC, an Alabama-based consulting firm employed by the utility, were shadowing the journalist throughout his critical coverage of a failed $11 billion purchase of a smaller Florida utility.

In an interview with a group of Florida-based reporters in early June, FPL’s CEO Eric Silagy denied that the company had asked the consultants to spy on any journalists.

“I have never authorized or approved or been a party to following you or any other reporter,” Silagy said to Monroe and others.

FPL’s relationship with Matrix has come under scrutiny after reporting by the Orlando Sentinel revealed Matrix operatives orchestrated a campaign to promote spoiler candidates that diverted votes from Democrats so Republicans could retain control of the Florida Senate. FPL denies knowledge of or involvement in that scheme.

While surveilling journalists is commonplace in some parts of the world, it’s happening more frequently in the United States, said Ted Bridis, a journalism instructor at the University of Florida. A former Associated Press investigative editor whose phone records were seized by the FBI a decade ago, Bridis said harassment of journalists is escalating, facilitated by a “new era of political divisiveness.”

“The fact that this kind of behavior could be taking place in Florida, allegedly by people with ties to the largest energy company, should shock the conscience,” he said.

FPL has said a law firm reviewed its work with Matrix and found no evidence of wrongdoing by the utility’s employees, but FPL has refused to share the report or its findings.

The documents revealing the surveillance were sent to the Florida Times-Union and shared with the Orlando Sentinel and Floodlight. The documents include a series of text messages to FPL’s vice president of state legislative affairs, Daniel Martell, that show an apparent coordinated effort to follow Monroe while he was on vacation.

Monroe had been a frequent critic of FPL’s efforts to privatize and purchase a community-owned electric, water and sewer utility located in Jacksonville, JEA. FPL, which controls the territory surrounding Jacksonville, has long coveted the utility.

FPL spokesman David Reuter in an emailed statement said his company had “no digital record of these exchanges and cannot prove their veracity.” He argued they may not be authentic or could be incomplete, taken out of context or “manipulated to make FPL look bad.”

“Taken individually or collectively, none of the information you have in your possession demonstrates any wrongdoing by FPL or our employees,” Reuter said. Reuter would not point to specific details in the documents that he thought might be false. FPL has repeatedly accused journalists of unfairly covering the company.

FPL alleges the documents are being released to reporters by Joe Perkins, who founded Matrix. Perkins is locked in a legal dispute with his firm’s former CEO, Jeff Pitts, who left the company in December 2020, taking several employees and clients with him.

Perkins declined to say whether he is the source of the documents leaked to journalists but verified that the records are legitimate. He confirmed that Matrix was able to locate the records on Pitts’ former laptop. Perkins blames Pitts and other “rogue” employees for the surveillance.

He denied directing anyone to spy on Monroe.

“I had no knowledge that it ever took place until I saw the material on Jeff Pitts’ computer,” he said.

In a statement responding to questions from the Times-Union about the records, Pitts’ attorney John Collins accused Perkins of “leaking partial and misleading confidential client documents.”

“For years, Joe Perkins directed and paid for the surveillance of individuals – in many cases, without client knowledge or approval – and he often leveraged this information for whatever suited his needs regardless of ethical boundaries,” Collins said. “This is one of the many reasons Jeff left Matrix.”

The documents, which were sent to the Times-Union by an anonymous source, show that 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 featured the city’s name prominently — clearly depicting his whereabouts. Hours later, after his alma mater Louisiana State University defeated rival University of Alabama in football, Monroe tweeted, “OK. Time to get drunk.” According to leaked text messages, which Perkins said were found on Pitts’ computer, someone at Matrix sent a screenshot of the tweet to FPL’s Martell at 7.34 p.m. Eastern time.

“Awesome,” Martell responded a minute later.

Sometime later, the Matrix operative texted Martell, “He’s in an Uber,” adding a frowning emoji. The text lines up with Monroe’s rideshare receipt from that evening.

Documents obtained by the Times-Union also included a photo taken of Monroe while he was walking his dog with his then-girlfriend near their Jacksonville-area apartment. The photo, dated Oct. 14, 2020, was taken days after Monroe published a column about how FPL the summer before had planned to direct donations to charities led by members of Jacksonville’s City Council. Those members would have to sign off on a JEA sale. The plan was never executed.

Another email dated Oct. 24, 2019, between Pitts, the Matrix CEO, and Martell, the FPL employee, contained a comprehensive background report on Monroe that featured sensitive personal information, including his Social Security number.

“Shocker he is a Democrat and completely boring,” Pitts wrote of the columnist in the documents.

It’s unclear who was monitoring Monroe’s movements, how frequently, or what they hoped to gather. But Matrix records previously obtained by the Orlando Sentinel show the firm paid more than $10,000 in 2018 to Clear Capture Investigations, a private investigation firm in Gainesville that touts “political/corporate surveillance” as one of its specialties.

The firm has not responded to a request for comment.

FPL argued Matrix may have ordered the report for a different client and said it had no record of receiving such a report.

“If Matrix sent such a report to FPL, it was sent unsolicited,” Reuter said. “If we wish to learn more about a journalist, we consult publicly available sources such as social media, the internet and other information which is readily available to any member of the public.”

Observing or photographing someone in a public place or collecting information about them isn’t illegal, said Clay Calvert, a professor of law at UF.

“It’s the intimidation that’s the problem,” he said.

But Calvert said surveillance would discourage few journalists from writing critical stories and such behavior might entice other reporters to rally around one of their peers.

“It’s clearly bad public relations to try to intimidate journalists,” he said.

In addition to monitoring Monroe, Pitts and other Matrix operatives in 2019 launched a nonprofit called Grow United, through which they orchestrated a job offer to Garrett Dennis, a member of Jacksonville’s City Council who opposed privatizing JEA, in a failed effort to coax him into resigning his elected office, the Times Union and Sentinel reported previously.

The following year, the Matrix consultants used Grow United to fund $550,000 in mailers promoting independent candidates in three competitive state Senate races. Though the “ghost” candidates did not campaign, the mailers promoted them as progressives in an apparent attempt to siphon votes away from their Democratic opponents and help Republicans.

Five people are facing criminal charges in connection with the scheme, including former Florida Sen. Frank Artiles of Miami, who is accused of paying Alex Rodriguez nearly $45,000 to run in a South Florida race. Rodriguez received more than 6,000 votes, helping Republican Ileana Garcia defeat incumbent Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez, an FPL critic, by 32 votes.

Alex Rodriguez pleaded guilty last year to the charges and agreed to testify in the state’s case against Artiles.

Last month, political consultant Eric Foglesong, Seminole County GOP Chair Ben Paris and independent candidate Jestine Iannotti also were charged in connection with a Central Florida race. Those charges stem from accusations that Iannotti’s financial reports listed contributions from people who told investigators they never donated to her campaign.

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Mario is an investigative reporter and a Dominican immigrant. His byline has appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The New Republic and NPR. mario@floodlightnews.org

Mario Alejandro Ariza/Floodlight