Florida’s largest utility company funneled money to a news website, which it then used to defend the utility’s positions and attack critics, two bombshell reports find. Leaked documents reviewed by both the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald paint a portrait of how Florida Power and Light (FPL) executives used consultants and shell companies to get pro-utility articles and hits against its political enemies published on a local Florida news website, the Capitolist.
The documents reviewed by both news outlets show that the editor of the Capitolist, Brian Burgess, who once worked as the communications director for Florida’s former Republican Gov. Rick Scott, gets his paycheck (a cool $12,000 a month—so that’s how you make journalism profitable!) entirely from shell companies controlled by FPL’s consultants. The utility made sure it got what it paid for: The outlets report that FPL consultants were able to “pre-screen” articles published on the Capitolist, with the ability to both order articles written on certain topics and change details down to the headlines and content of the pieces. The Capitolist never disclosed its financial relationship with FPL either in its stories or on its website.
“As we stated to the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel, we cannot prove the veracity of the documents that have been leaked to reporters,” an FPL spokesperson told Earther in an email. “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.”
The spokesperson went on: “To be clear, owning a media organization is not and has never been a crime. For example, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry owns the Boston Globe and a private investment firm owns the Miami Herald. While it would be perfectly legal, FPL does not have an ownership interest in the Capitolist – either directly or indirectly. We also do not have editorial control over what the Capitolist writes or publishes. As we do with media organizations across the state and nation, we distribute news releases to the Capitolist and, when requested, respond to its media inquiries.”
Capitolist editor Burgess also told the Herald the records have “fundamental errors or omissions that paint a wildly inaccurate picture of the Capitolist and its operations,” without giving specifics. We reached out to Burgess for comment but have not heard back at time of publication.
Florida Power and Light is a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, the largest utility in the country; FPL is the state’s largest utility, serving some 12 million people across Florida. It’s also a political powerhouse, and its behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the statehouse and beyond and has been the subject of several recent investigations from both local publications. This year, an investigation exposed the utility for writing the text of a bill that would have kneecapped rooftop solar in Florida; records show FPL gave direct contributions to politicians who used utility-written text to introduce legislation in both the House and the Senate. (Incredibly, in a rare pro-environmental move, Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the bill before it could become law.)
Seems that as FPL was paying off politicians, it was also paying off the media. The Capitolist was founded in 2016, and the Herald reports that FPL executives seem to have had input in the Capitolist’s reporting as far back as 2018. That relationship solidified in 2019, when a shell company owned by Abigail MacIver, who was then employed by a company hired to consult with FPL, signed a purchase option agreement with the Capitolist, which gave the shell company “executive control” in the Capitolist’s operations. (MacIver, by the way, has some hefty fossil fuel career bona fides: per her LinkedIn, she worked for more than four years at the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity Foundation and also worked at the Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy, a pro-utility front group.)
This arrangement, and the careful use of shell companies, allowed FPL to maintain a distance from the Capitolist itself while its paid intermediaries did the dirty work. (Burgess said in a statement to the Herald that he had “never received a story pitch from any FPL executive outside of typical corporate press releases sent to all media outlets—which the paper acknowledged is true, as the documents show him only communicating with consultants and shell companies.) The two reports out this week contain a whole bunch of details about how FPL intermediaries shaped coverage, including:
- Text messages show Dan Martell, FPL’s vice president of state legislative affairs, suggesting to MacIver a piece on DeSantis’s opponent in the 2018 gubernatorial election. A piece with Martell’s suggested talking points went up on the Capitolist three hours after his initial text. “Promote the @&;$&!!! Out of this,” Martell told MacIver.
- The Capitolist often took aim at the Herald and the Sentinel, two outlets that had been doggedly tracing FPL’s political influence, especially reporter Mary Ellen Klas. In one email to consultants after the Herald’s parent company filed for bankruptcy, Eric Silagy, FPL’s CEO, suggests “a cartoon of [Klas] with a tin cup on the street corner” to run in a piece.
- In 2020, Burgess pitched a story to MacIver on utilities shutting off power during the pandemic over unpaid bills. MacIver emailed her boss, Jeff Pitts, the primary liaison with FPL, to suggest allowing the story to run, as it “makes [Burgess] look like he’s not in our pocket and it isn’t bad for FPL, especially if he highlights them as being a good actor.” The resulting story included a bullet point on an FPL education campaign on how to cut down on energy costs.
Electric utilities are some of the most powerful political players in statehouses around the country, and they often go to great lengths to preserve their supremacy. Many utilities are also obsessed with controlling their public image: as we reported last year, some utilities have gone so far as to demand people criticizing them on social media be fired or spoken to by their bosses. Utilities aren’t the only big energy players capitalizing on their own media sites—Chevron has paid for a whole newspaper in California for years, and recently advertised job postings for journalists for a new “newsroom”—but the Capitolist shows how far a utility might go to keep their agenda hidden.
And these reports show that FPL’s media aspirations could go above and beyond just one outlet. In a 2020 email sent to MacIver, Burgess suggested buying all papers in Florida currently owned by media giant Gannett, owner of the USA Today brand of papers, and “let[ting] 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 those publications and nobody has to know who’s actually pulling the strings.”
MacIver forwarded Burgess’s email to Pitts, who then forwarded it to Martell and Silagy. Burgess, Pitts wrote, “has a good concept/observation that I’m sure others are thinking about.”