How FPL allegedly took over a Florida news site

When Florida Power & Light faced a spate of bad publicity and political pushback, a small, ambitious news website called The Capitolist came to the utility’s defense.

Taking aim at foes of FPL for criticizing their aspirations to buy Jacksonville’s public utility and proposed rate hikes, The Capitolist went after these critics, impugning their motives and accusing them of being a part of dark money schemes.

“Documents suggest Florida’s largest companies are secretly sabotaging effort to protect power lines from hurricane damage,” declared one such headline from a 2019 article.

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According to published reports, the article – which also promoted legislation to reimburse the multi-billion dollar industry for undergrounding power lines – wasn’t published simply because The Capitolist is conservative and pro-business, but the article was written after FPL president and CEO Eric Silagy made clear he wanted it. During the time in which the article was published, Silagy was secretly running The Capitolist.

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While presenting itself as an independent outlet, the Capitolist – which aims its content directly to lawmakers in Tallahassee – was controlled by executives of the power company through a small group of intermediaries from an Alabama consulting firm, according to an investigation by the Miami Herald.

Text messages and emails show how FPL executives pulled strings at the Capitolist to indirectly get their stories and messages across to the public.

Three days prior to the 2018 Governor election, vice president of state legislative affairs of FPL Daniel Martell reportedly ordered up a hit piece on Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum, who was then neck and neck with Ron DeSantis.

In a text to consultants, the FPL executive said he wanted a story posted regarding the then mayor failing to meet his duties, proposing the narrative of the number of shootings in Tallahassee since the primary.

More effective than traditional PR, the Capitolist ran a business in which Brian Burgess, Capitol editor, said in a 2020 email “because media is supposed to be ‘objective’ and pay to play is ‘icky’ to the larger corporations. They don’t want it known they were engaged in that sort of behavior.” Burgess concluded that it was important to look like “we’re legit,” according to the Miami Herald.

Chris McGrath, spokesperson for FPL, in a statement, said the company “cannot prove the veracity of documents that have been leaked to the reporters.”

“We have seen evidence that some of these documents have been doctored to try to make FPL look bad. We have found absolutely no evidence of illegality or wrongdoing by FPL or its employees.”

~Chris McGrath

According to reports the plan to take over the Capitolist centered on Matrix, a Montgomery-based political consulting firm that employed the intermediaries between the two companies. The intermediaries, led by then CEO Jeff Pitts, established a shell of companies that obscured operations it ran for FPL.

“While it would be perfectly legal, FPL does not have ownership interest in the Capitol – either directly or indirectly,” FPL spokesperson Chris McGrath said in a statement to the Herald. “We also do not have editorial control over what the Capitolist writes or publishes.”

~Brian Burgess

Abigail MacIver, the owner of Metis group LLC, the shell company of FPL that received money and earmarked for the Capitolist in 2018, was told by Burgess in an email that the key to their business model suggesting to buy all of the USA-Today affiliated papers in Florida and then “let most of the clown reporters go… and syndicate content across the entire state.”

“We could even do it stealthily so we could inject content into all these publications and nobody has to know who’s actually pulling the strings,” he suggested in the 2020 email.

The Capitolist attacked the credibility of outlets across the state when critical of FPL. The outlet published a series accusing newspapers of feckless funding structures, referencing “fake news”, and targeted individual authors and reporters.

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