The story of former ABC News producer Kristen Hentschel and the Matrix LLC political-consulting firm seems, at first glance, to be a tale of what might be called "journalistic fraud." After all, Hentschel would use her ABC News credentials to gain access to pro-environment political candidates, only to pepper them with bogus, accusatory questions designed to benefit Matrix's big-polluting clients -- Alabama Power, Southern Company, and Florida Power & Light. Alabama-based Matrix, it turns out, was paying Hentschel to pull off the deceptive scheme.
Upon further inspection, however, the story includes enough romantic entanglements to fill several scripts for an afternoon soap opera. Perhaps that is fitting because Hentschel, before she was outed and fired by ABC News last week, was best known for having an affair with ABC journalist Chris Hansen, of To Catch a Predator fame.
A joint investigation by NPR and Florida-based Floodlight led to a story that broke the Hentschel-Matrix scam on a national stage. It was as if the Hentschel-Hansen affair served as an appetizer for the bigger scandal to come - - and, as it turned out, that story had plenty of sex angles, too.
Hentschel worked on the periphery of TV news, but struggled to gain a firm foothold on the big time. Write NPR/Floodlight reporters Miranda Green, Mario Ariza, and David Folkenflik:
Hentschel began her journalism career with short stints at local TV newsrooms in Chico, Calif., Waco, Texas, and Knoxville, Tennessee.
"A lot of people think that the television business ... looks Hollywood-esque," Hentschel once told Baldwin Park Living, a Florida lifestyle magazine. "I made $8 an hour [at] my first job, laid on couches and had to move around literally every one to two years."
At those jobs, she covered crime, storms, traffic — mainstays of local news.
Her career foundered in 2011 when the National Enquirer disclosed a romantic relationship between her and a married man: Chris Hansen, the former host of NBC's To Catch a Predator.
Hentschel learned that TV news presents a double standard for women in a highly competitive business:
Subsequent stints in Las Vegas, Seattle and Orlando, Fla., proved brief. "A double standard is an understatement as to what happens in this industry," Hentschel told RadarOnline.com in an interview about her relationship with Hansen. "The women get fired and the men keep going." Professionally, she had been using the name Kristyn Caddell, which endures on her Twitter account, but shifted to her family name, Kristen Hentschel, by late 2015.
Soon, Hentschel was out of work, and perhaps from desperation, turned to Matrix. Her resume found its way to the firm's CEO, Jeff Pitts -- and he hired her in early 2016. But that was not to be Hentschel's only job:
Hentschel soon secured a second gig. In February 2016, she started as a freelance news producer for ABC News.
Hentschel primarily did work for Good Morning America. Among her assignments: helping with segments on NFL star Tom Brady and the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito, the young Florida woman who documented her cross-country trip on social media.
"Our setup for today... #lighting is everything," Hentschel once tweeted with a photograph of a TV reporting shoot. "Who's in the hot seat?"
The answer often proved to be people Pitts wanted her to confront.
Perhaps the strangest episode came when Matrix decided to spy on Southern Company chief Tom Fanning:
In another instance, the former girlfriend of Southern Company's CEO, Tom Fanning, says Hentschel cozied up to her over the past year. Southern Company is a rival to Florida Power & Light. This August, Alabama news site AL.com reported that Matrix had previously paid a private investigator to spy on Fanning in the summer of 2017. . . .
Matrix's founder, Joe Perkins, disavows any knowledge of Hentschel's work for Matrix and says Pitts was acting as a "rogue" employee in Florida.
Pitts left Matrix to found a rival firm in late 2020, alleging in court papers that he quit Matrix over Perkins' "unethical business practices," including "ordering and directing the clandestine surveillance including that of top executives of his largest client, the Southern Company." Perkins blames Pitts for the surveillance.
According to NPR/Floodlight, Pitts had a tendency to mix business with pleasure:
Pitts mixed business with romance, Matrix financial records show. Over the course of the last decade, Pitts paid his then-wife more than $10,000 for work for Matrix, according to copies of the firm's invoices reflecting payments to her personal company. She had previously been employed at Alabama Power, one of Matrix's oldest clients, according to press clippings and two associates.
Matrix also paid Pitts' ongoing romantic partner, Apryl Marie Fogel, a conservative radio-show host, nearly $150,000 over several years. Fogel runs the conservative news site Alabama Today, which published articles showcasing Matrix clients in a favorable light.
On a recent episode of her radio show, Fogel compared her relationship with Pitts to that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, the pro-Trump activist Ginni Thomas.
"You check it at the door," Fogel says. "You may be somewhat, in a fuzzy way, aware of what the other person is doing. And you want them to be successful, but it doesn't mean that you two—that everything is running in lockstep."
It did not take long for Hentschel to become part of the romantic scene:
Shortly after Hentschel started working for Pitts at Matrix, the two began an affair, associates say, though it is not clear how long it lasted. Hentschel bought a home close to Pitts' apartment in West Palm Beach, Florida, public records show.
Meanwhile, Hentschel targeted political figures who could pose a problem for Matrix clients. One target proved to be the mayor of South Miami, who had promoted residential solar panels in the Sunshine State:
Hentschel called Phil Stoddard, then the mayor of South Miami, in August 2018. He says she identified herself as an ABC reporter and asked him about an upcoming press conference likely to bring unflattering publicity. A lawsuit had been filed by parents of a teenager who was hospitalized years earlier after attending a party thrown by Stoddard's teenage daughter. (The suit was ultimately settled.)
The press conference turned out to be a sham. It had been orchestrated by Joe Carrillo, a private detective, and Dan Newman, a political operative with financial links to Matrix, according to Matrix documents and a copy of the press release obtained by Floodlight and NPR.
Matrix paid Hentschel $2,000 a few weeks later for what was itemized as a "Miami shoot," a Matrix ledger shows.
The interest in Stoddard, a biologist, seems easy to discern. Stoddard had clashed with Florida Power & Light over transmission lines, a nuclear power plant, and policies on residential solar panels. . . .
Internal Matrix emails between Newman, the political operative, and Pitts, the firm's then-CEO, show it hired a private detective to investigate Stoddard's personal life. The Orlando Sentinel reported that Matrix-linked nonprofits spent six figures trying to knock him out of office. . . .On Sept. 26, Hentschel showed up with a videographer to a city council meeting.
"I thought, 'No good's gonna come of this,'" Stoddard recalls. He shut down her requests for comment at the council meeting. He continued battling Florida Power & Light even after he left office in 2020.
NPR/Floodlight found that ABC News probably should not have been caught off guard by Hentschel's activities:
There is evidence that ABC News was first told two years ago that Hentschel inappropriately invoked her network ties in conducting work that had nothing to do with ABC News.
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Florida, a conservative Republican, has established a record as an advocate of strengthening water quality in Lake Okeechobee, the state's largest freshwater lake. He has introduced four pieces of legislation to address toxic algal blooms there.
His work puts him at odds with Florida's powerful sugar interest, Florida Crystals. Okeechobee is kept artificially full for that industry and other corporate use. Mast's bills could ultimately cut into their profits.
"They'll do anything that they can to hold onto that grip of controlling water in the state of Florida," Mast says. "And I'm probably the number one person that goes against them."
In the heat of the 2020 election season, Hentschel chased down Mast at a fundraiser featuring then-President Donald Trump. She told Mast's aides she wanted to ask him about messages he wrote nearly a decade earlier, before entering politics. He had joked about rape and sex with teenagers in Facebook posts to a friend. They had just surfaced publicly, and he had apologized. The aides didn't bite.
The conservative Florida news site The Capitolist called Mast's proposals extreme and urged readers to vote for his Democratic opponent. Matrix had previously funneled The Capitolist nearly $200,000 from Florida Power & Light, the firm's invoices show. Perkins denied Matrix paid The Capitolist and said the company "was unaware of any financial relationships between The Capitolist and any Matrix client."
That September, Hentschel rang the doorbell at Mast's home in a gated community and told Mast's wife she was reporting for ABC, even handing over a business card citing the network, according to Mast's accounts in an interview for this story and in a trespassing complaint he filed with police.
A senior aide to Mast shot off an email to ABC. Its political director, Rick Klein, replied that Hentschel was not there for the network.
Election Day was two months away. In a video he posted on Facebook, Mast denounced his Democratic opponent for sending Hentschel to his door. "I want to talk about something that frankly is just BS," Mast said.
Mast now says he believes Hentschel sought to intimidate him on behalf of the sugar company and Matrix client Florida Crystals — an allegation the company rejected.
The story eventually circles back to the peculiar surveillance of Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning -- and Hentschel played a role in that, too:
In fact, Hentschel's work stretched beyond Florida politicians and news conferences.
This past June, fitness instructor Kim Tanaka was sitting poolside at an upscale hotel in Atlanta when a reporter for Bloomberg News called with a startling question: Did Tanaka know that she had been spied on five years prior?
Tanaka's boyfriend during that period was Tom Fanning, the CEO of energy giant Southern Company — a direct competitor of Florida Power & Light. The couple broke up in late 2017.
The reporter, Josh Saul, laid out the material he'd obtained in a leaked Matrix dossier, which included private information about her, Tanaka recalls.
"It made me feel mad. Definitely violated. And anxious," Tanaka says.
Bloomberg never published a story. A private investigator confirmed to AL.com this year that he had surveilled Tanaka and Fanning five years ago for Matrix. (Matrix founder Perkins says then-CEO Pitts ordered the operation without his knowledge. Pitts says Perkins knew.)
But there was another shocker in the dossier. It didn't just contain old information pertaining to Tanaka — it contained recent and sensitive information about Fanning's wife, whom he married after breaking up with Tanaka. To Tanaka, it meant the spying had continued as recently as this year.
A friend was sitting alongside Tanaka in June as she took Saul's call: Kristen Hentschel.
In late 2021, Hentschel had hired Tanaka at an Atlanta gym to be her personal trainer, even though there's no record of Hentschel living in Georgia. The two became close, even vacationing together. Another former Matrix operative, Paul Hamrick, had also hired Tanaka as his trainer the same week as Hentschel, according to emails reviewed by Floodlight and NPR. Tanaka says she told Hentschel and Hamrick private details found in the dossier and doesn't know if they or someone else spied on her. Hentschel remains a good friend, Tanaka says, and a lot of fun.