|Kristen Hentschel (NY Post)
A journalist who identifies herself as working for ABC News has been paid by an Alabama-based political-consulting firm to sideswipe pro-environment politicians with deceptive questions, according to a report at NPR/Floodlight.
The journalist was Kristen Hentschel, the consulting firm was Montgomery-based Matrix LLC. The beneficiaries of the scheme were designed to be Matrix clients -- such as Alabama Power, Southern Company, and Florida Power & Light -- all with ties to projects known to produce pollution.
How did the "reporting" scheme with an ABC News journalist work? Exhibit A involves a Florida political candidate named Toby Overdorf, who had pledged to take a serious approach to environmental protection. That's where Hentschel enters the picture. Under the headline "She was an ABC News producer. She also was a corporate operative, NPR/Floodlight reporters Miranda Green, Mario Ariza, and David Folkenflik write:
Microphone and ABC News business card in hand, Hentschel rushed up to a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives before a debate, the candidate recalls, and asked him about 20 dead gopher tortoises that were reportedly found at a nearby construction site [in Stuart, FL]. Florida designates the species as threatened.
Overdorf, an environmental engineer, served as a consultant on the construction project -- and he knew of no such tortoises. A city investigation found there were no dead tortoises, and no evidence that any ever had been present during the construction project. The oddities about the story do not end there, as NPR/Floodlight report:
That wasn't the only surprise. Though Hentschel has done freelance work for ABC, she was not there for the network.
At the time, a political consulting firm called Matrix LLC had paid Hentschel at least $7,000, the firm's internal ledgers show. And Matrix billed two major companies for Hentschel's work, labeling the payments "for Florida Crystals, FPL." (Florida Crystals is a huge sugar conglomerate. FPL is shorthand for the giant utility Florida Power & Light.)
Both companies could have benefited from Hentschels efforts to undermine Overdorf and his promises to resolve environmental issues in the district he was vying to represent. Florida Power & Light has pushed back against efforts to bring solar panels to the Sunshine State, while runoff from the sugar industry is a major source of water pollution in Florida.
Overdorf won his election, but he remains distressed that he was subjected to such journalistic skulduggery:
"It was an attack ad against my livelihood, my family," Overdorf says. "And it was something that potentially could last far beyond my time running for office."
Overdorf was not the only victim of the Hentschel/Matrix operation. Once Hentschel's ties to Matrix became public, ABC cut ties with her earlier this week:
Interviews for this story and Matrix ledgers show Hentschel traded on her work for ABC News at least three times to trip up Florida politicians whose stances on environmental regulations cut against the interests of major Matrix clients. Internal Matrix financial records originally sent anonymously to the Orlando Sentinel and shared with Floodlight show that since 2016, the firm has paid Hentschel at least $14,350.
According to two people at ABC News with knowledge, Hentschel was not, in fact, reporting for ABC on any of those subjects. "If she was working on these stories, she was not authorized to cover them for ABC News," one of them said. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive network matters. . . .
"Kristen Hentschel was a freelance daily hire who never worked for ABC News on the political stories referenced in the NPR article," the network said in a statement. "She does not currently work for ABC NEWS."
How unusual is the Hentschel story.? One news veteran cannot remember another one like it:
David Westin, president of ABC News from 1997 to 2010, says he never came across an instance in which a journalist for the network was simultaneously doing advocacy.
"It just goes to the very heart of why people no longer have the same confidence and trust in the news media as they once did," says Westin, now an anchor for Bloomberg TV. "They suspect this is going on anyway, and for it to actually go on confirms their worst suspicions."
Hentschel, it turns out, appeared in all kinds of places -- almost like a female Forrest Gump:
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.
Hentschel did not return multiple detailed requests for comment.
Matrix's former CEO, Jeff Pitts, who hired Hentschel for the firm, declined comment.
That leads us back -- as Matrix-related stories often do -- to the legal feud between Pitts and Joe Perkins:
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.
All of this leads to questions about the possible roles of Southern Company, Alabama Power, and Matrix in other unsavory Alabama events. These include the head-on vehicle crash that nearly killed Birmingham-area attorney Burt Newsome, someone shooting into the car of former Drummond Company executive David Roberson as he drove on U.S. 280 near Mountain Brook, and an apparent fake deposition of a Verizon Wireless records custodian in the Newsome Conspiracy Case.
Documents -- and investigative reporting -- shine considerable light on Hentschel's ties to Matrix:
After Pitts left Matrix, reporters from Floodlight and NPR obtained company records documenting Hentschel's work. This story also draws on other materials, including court records, and 14 interviews with people with direct knowledge of her activities.
In recent months, Matrix has also been accused of interfering in the workings of democracy in Alabama and Florida by seeking to influence ballot initiatives, running ghost candidates and offering a lucrative job to a public official if he resigned. As Floodlight and NPR have revealed, Matrix secretly maintained financial ties to a half-dozen political news sites and tried to ensure favorable coverage for clients.
Next: Romantic intrigue plays a major role in the Hentschel/Matrix story.
Here are other major news outlets to cover the story: