|Journalist Nate Monroe, with a friend on vacation
Dueling lawsuits in Alabama and Florida, featuring current and past leaders of the Montgomery-based Matrix LLC political consulting firm, have sparked surveillance of a journalist, according to reports from newspapers based in the South and the UK.
K.B. Forbes, publisher of banbalch.com, likens the legal battle between Matrix founder Joe Perkins and former CEO Jeff Pitts -- he calls it "the Matrix Meltdown" -- to a mud-wrestling match:
“Sloppy Joe” Perkins, the infamous founder of the obscure political consulting firm Matrix, and his once-protégé “Jittery Jeff” Pitts have made headlines again.
The Guardian published an investigative report on the ugly he-said, he-said fighting between the two men of mythical fame.
After a document dump landed in journalists’ laps, the two mud wrestlers smeared each other. The Guardian writes:
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 [journalist Nate] 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 tailing of Nate Monroe sounds like something out of a John Grisham novel. From a report that originated at Florida Floodlight and the Orlando Sentinel, under the headline "A Florida power company didn’t like a journalist’s commentary. Its consultants had him followed":
Consultants working for America’s largest power company covertly monitored a Jacksonville 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 (FPL) 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 Florida 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 $11bn purchase of a smaller Florida utility.
How did such ugliness get started in Florida?
Has the surveillance crossed any legal boundaries? Probably not, at this point:
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.
Although 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.
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. “It’s clearly bad public relations to try to intimidate journalists,” he said.
From his base near Birmingham, K.B. Forbes said the Florida story sounds like a movie he's seen before:
The acts affirm the alleged unsavory if not criminal conduct tied to Matrix’s biggest client: Alabama Power and the utility’s sister-wife Balch & Bingham.
The Florida surveillance reminds us of Balch attorney Irving Jones, Jr. who infiltrated meetings and monitored the social media of GASP, a small but loud environmental group and public charity, during the North Birmingham Bribery Scandal. Drummond Company was apparently petrified of GASP’s successful efforts.
Of the numerous Dirty Deeds we documented in January that may or may not be tied to Matrix stooges, law enforcement clearly indicated that the wife of Burt Newsome was targeted by thugs who were specifically looking for her car when they broke her car window and stole her purse. The incident occurred at the height of the Newsome Conspiracy Case. The thugs were apparently attempting to obtain her cellphone which was not in her purse.