Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Report shows Alabama-based Matrix LLC is in the midst of Florida turmoil that involves utility firms, money trails, lawsuits, and election intrigue


 

Matrix LLC, a Montgomery, AL-based political communications and consulting firm, was in the midst of a plan to turn a Jacksonville, FL, public utility into a private concern -- in a deal that would have been worth about $11 billion. The plan involved luring an opponent of privatization off the Jacksonville City Council with an enticing job offer. It did not work, but the plan has ties to a political scandal that has rocked Florida over the past year, according to a report at the Orlando Sentinel. It also touches on dueling lawsuits, crossing two states, that involve Matrix owner Joe Perkins and former CEO Jeff Pitts. Write reporters Jason Garcia and Annie Martin:

In the middle of 2019, Jacksonville City Council member Garrett Dennis was approached by a friend about a mysterious job offer.

The offer was to lead an organization Dennis had never heard of before. He’d make close to $250,000, expenses included, and travel the country advocating for the decriminalization of marijuana — an issue Dennis was passionate about.

There was just one catch: Dennis would have to resign from the City Council.

“I said, ‘Man, I’m not doing that,’” Dennis recalled this week.

Dennis said nothing ever came of the cryptic job offer. But records and interviews show it was orchestrated by consultants working with Florida Power & Light (FPL) — the utility giant whose parent company soon after submitted an $11 billion bid to buy Jacksonville’s city-owned electric company.

Any sale of the public utility, known as Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA), was going to need approval from the City Council — and Dennis was firmly opposed to privatization.

How did the job offer materialize, and what did it mean? The Sentinel provides answers that trace to Alabama -- and a roiling scandal in the Sunshine State:

   

    The job offer plan was hatched by employees at an Alabama-based political and communications consulting firm called Matrix LLC, which was one of many outside consultants FPL enlisted to promote its ultimately unsuccessful campaign to buy JEA. It’s now part of a bitter legal dispute involving Matrix, some of its former employees and FPL.

    

      But it’s also part of an election scandal that has rocked Florida politics over the past year. That’s because the Jacksonville City Council member’s job would have been through “Grow United Inc.” — the same dark-money group used in 2020 to finance an ad campaign for the so-called “ghost” candidates who ran in three battleground state Senate elections.

FPL points a finger directly at Matrix LLC and its founder/owner, Dr. Joe Perkins. (FPL, by the way, is a subsidiary of NextEra Energy). Matrix, in turn, points fingers in other directions. From the Sentinel report:

A spokesperson for FPL confirmed that Matrix suggested creating a job for Dennis. But he said FPL rejected the proposal and pointed the blame at Matrix and its owner, longtime Alabama political consultant Joe Perkins.

“In July 2019, a Matrix representative working for Joe Perkins approached FPL about a plan to offer Garrett Dennis a job working to decriminalize marijuana,” FPL spokesperson David Reuter said. “FPL flatly rejected the plan and communicated our lack of interest to Joe Perkins’ team.”

An attorney for Perkins pointed to the company’s former CEO, Jeff Pitts, who left Matrix at the end of 2020 to start a new Florida-based consulting firm — with FPL as a client. Matrix has since sued Pitts and other former employees, accusing them of conspiring with an unnamed Florida-based client on secret projects and cheating Matrix out of fees.

“Matrix never participated in the proposal or implementation of any plan involving payment to a member of the Jacksonville City Council,” Matrix attorney Cason Kirby said. “To the extent any rogue Matrix employees were involved in those activities, they were undertaken in secret, without Dr. Perkins’ knowledge or consent.”

A spokesperson for Pitts’ new company, called Canopy Partners, would not answer questions but accused Perkins of leaking documents — which Perkins has denied. Pitts has countersued Perkins, accusing his former boss of extortion, and Canopy Partners has broadly denied any wrongdoing.

“Joe Perkins continues to leak false and misleading documents and we are not going to comment on his multimillion-dollar extortion scheme,” Canopy spokesperson John Collins said. He did not cite any examples of false or misleading documents.

It does appear, however, that someone did leak documents to the press:

Details of the proposed job for the Jacksonville City Council member are included in a cache of documents anonymously delivered to the Orlando Sentinel in late November. The records include checks, bank statements, emails, text messages, invoices, internal ledgers and more, all apparently unearthed during an internal investigation Matrix launched after Pitts and several other employees left the firm. The Sentinel partnered with Florida Times-Union metro news columnist Nate Monroe in Jacksonville to report this story.

The documents shed new light on how the then-Matrix consultants worked behind the scenes — including through intermediaries, political committees and dark-money nonprofits — to influence Florida politics on state and local levels, in ways that often advanced the utility company’s interests.

Why is Jacksonville Electric Authority an attractive target for privatization? 

The 127-year-old JEA is one of the largest publicly owned utility companies in the country, with nearly half a million electricity customers and nearly 400,000 water customers. Private companies have expressed interest in buying it for years — including FPL, which controls the territory surrounding Jacksonville.

The most recent attempt to privatize the agency began in late 2017, when an ally of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry — Republican fundraiser Tom Petway, one of the mayor’s appointees to JEA’s board of directors — announced he believed JEA should consider privatization.

Around the same time, an obscure new group appeared called “Fix JEA Now.” The group was organized, according to three people, by Rev. Deves Toon, the National Field Director for Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network who had recently arrived in Jacksonville.

Toon recruited Angie Nixon to serve as the public face of Fix JEA Now. Nixon, who is now a Democratic state representative from Jacksonville, said she initially agreed to get involved because she was concerned about a controversial deal JEA had struck to buy electricity from a nuclear power plant in Georgia.

But she said she soon concluded that Toon wanted to use Fix JEA Now to promote privatization.

“I decided to leave because I noticed some stuff that was fishy — it seemed as though they were going the route to sell JEA,” said Nixon.

That leads to a tangled money trail:

The records sent to the Sentinel include ledgers for various entities controlled by the former Matrix employees that show more than $180,000 in combined payments to Toon in 2018. Some of those payments are explicitly associated with JEA.

It’s not always clear from the ledgers which entities the payments came from. But one payment — $15,000 for “consulting” in December 2018 — came from a nonprofit organization called Mothers for Moderation directly funded by FPL.

The Mothers for Moderation records — which also include copies of corresponding bank statements, checks and fundraising solicitations sent to FPL CEO Eric Silagy — show that FPL donated $14.15 million to the group in 2018. That represented more than 90% of the money that Mothers for Moderation raised that year; all of the remaining money came from other nonprofits.


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.

Reuter, the spokesperson for FPL, said the company was “aware” that Matrix was paying Toon for work related to multiple clients. One of his tasks was to build support for a sale of JEA.

“As we understood it, Rev. Toon was engaging with members of his community to ask for their support to privatize JEA,” he said.

Part of the money trail led from FPL to Matrix LLC:

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.

But Kirby, the lawyer for Matrix, said Matrix had explicitly forbidden its employees to engage in any projects related to the sale of JEA “due to the public controversy surrounding the sale,” which became a political lightning rod in Jacksonville and eventually sparked local and federal investigations.

After Nixon quit, Toon brought in a new person to serve as the public face of Fix JEA Now: Dwight Brisbane, a political consultant in Jacksonville — and a longtime friend of City Council Member Garrett Dennis.

It was Brisbane who approached Dennis about the job offer.

In an interview, Dennis said Brisbane called him sometime in the spring or summer of 2019. The City Council member said he was in the middle of two big policy debates at the time: His own push to decriminalize marijuana and the debate over whether to sell JEA.

“[Brisbane] called me up one day, he said, ‘I was talking to Toon and they’re going to offer you this job doing the whole [decriminalization] thing for this organization,’” Dennis said. “‘They’re going to pay you about $250,000 a year, full expense account, to go around and speak on the decriminalization ... But the catch is that you’re going to have to resign from City Council.’”

Dennis said he couldn’t find any record of the organization existing and he suspected it was a scam. He also said he was suspicious of the motives behind the offer.

Dennis was seen as one of the staunchest opponents to selling JEA on Jacksonville’s 19-member City Council. Privatization was expected to be a tough sell to the council, because multiple past efforts to sell JEA had never gone anywhere and proven very controversial, both with the community and JEA’s own employees.

In a separate interview, Brisbane also confirmed that he approached Dennis about a potential job with a marijuana advocacy organization — and that he did so at the request of Toon. Brisbane said Toon told him that Toon “had a group that [Toon] would like to see if Garrett would be interested in.”

Brisbane said he did not recall telling Dennis that he would have to resign from the City Council, though Brisbane said he may have told Dennis that it would be difficult to remain in elected office because of all the travel the new job would involve.

A strategy memo shines light on the job offer:

Dennis’ memories align with a memo that was included in the records sent to the Sentinel.

The document is a three-page “strategy report” outlining a plan to create a nonprofit called Grow United to promote the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana around the country. It identified two “project goals” — one of which was to “create a job opportunity for District 9′s Garrett Dennis.” And it proposed paying a director $180,000, with another $60,000 set aside for travel and expenses.

The strategy report is dated July 21, 2019, two days before the JEA board of directors voted to begin the formal process of privatization — and three days before Grow United was formally incorporated in Delaware.

There is no author listed. But the summary of the internal Matrix investigation said it was written by April Odom, another former Matrix employee who is now being sued by the company. Odom’s brother is listed in public records as the chairperson of Grow United.

Odom did not respond to requests for comment.

The records provided to the Sentinel do not show FPL donating money directly to Grow United or communicating with the consultants about it. But they do show that the former Matrix employees appear to have created Grow United with FPL in mind.

Grow United wound up becoming entangled in Florida politics, which led to Republicans winning key state races under dubious circumstances -- and that has sparked a criminal investigation:

Ultimately, Grow United was used for other purposes — including supporting little-known independent candidates who ran for office in three key Senate races, including District 9 in Central Florida and Districts 37 and 39 in South Florida.

Though those candidates did no campaigning of their own, Grow United provided $550,000 to a pair of political committees that paid for mailers that appeared worded to appeal to Democratic voters. The political committees were run by Republican strategists in Tallahassee out of the headquarters for the big-business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida, whose members include FPL.

Republicans ultimately won all three races, helping the GOP retain its majority in the 40-member Florida Senate. But the scandal has sparked a criminal investigation out of Miami-Dade County, in which two people have been arrested: Alex Rodriguez, who ran as the independent candidate in one of the South Florida races, and former Republican Sen. Frank Artiles, who authorities say bribed Rodriguez to run. Rodriguez has pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Artiles, who has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Nobody else has been accused of wrongdoing, though Miami-Dade authorities say the investigation is still ongoing.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Matrix is doing its best to earn the title of a "dirty tricks" firm.

Anonymous said...

If the dude from the Jacksonville City Council doesn't want the marijuana-decriminalization job, I'll be glad to take it.

legalschnauzer said...

The money sounds good -- $250,000, plus expenses, is a pretty sweet gig.

Anonymous said...

you posted this in January! now it finally comes to "light", no pun intended ...