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An Alabama consulting firm that worked for Florida Power & Light during the attempted sale of JEA possesses records on Florida Times-Union columnist Nate Monroe that show extensive research into his personal life and indicate he was under surveillance in the fall of 2020, according to records leaked to the Times-Union in recent weeks.
The batch of leaked records included a photo of Monroe and his then-girlfriend that was taken without their knowledge while they walked their dog just outside their home.
The owner of Matrix, a firm that has a roster of political and corporate clients, said he didn’t know about the background report or the photo until a search found them on a computer server that stored files of former employees who were acting without his authorization. The owner, Joe Perkins, said the records that had been leaked to the Times-Union were authentic.
The document for the background report on Monroe shows the then-CEO of Matrix emailed it to FPL’s vice president of state legislative affairs in October 2019. FPL said it did not find any records of the utility receiving the report or the photo. The utility said it has not sought that that kind of information on journalists and does not condone gathering it.
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The documents show an unusual degree of interest in the non-work activities of Monroe, a metro columnist who has been at the forefront of covering the attempted sale of JEA and the investigations that followed the collapse of the sales process.
“It’s really un-American to be surveilling journalists,” University of Florida journalism instructor Ted Bridis said.
He said the activities probably are not illegal unless they were meant to intimidate or interfere with Monroe’s constitutionally protected rights as a journalist, which would fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Justice authority to investigate. Even if it was legal, it’s still “just really creepy,” Bridis said.
Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute Director Rick Mullaney said opposition research that hunts for embarrassing information has long been used in political campaigns to attack candidates, but he’d never heard of similar research of a Jacksonville journalist.
“If the media becomes the subject of this kind of research, will that have a potential chilling effect on journalists doing the job they need to do?” Mullaney said. “I do find it unsettling and I do find it concerning.”
Times-Union Executive Editor Mary Kelli Palka said “it’s disturbing to learn about the surveillance of Nate. It’s simply unacceptable.
“To be clear, however, we won’t allow any tactics to stop us from continuing to pursue the truth about what happened during the JEA sale process,” Palka said.
That 72-page background report on Monroe delved into his financial history, his political party affiliation, the names and phone numbers of his relatives and neighbors, his unredacted Social Security number, the make of his car, his driver’s license and license plate numbers, and places where he’d lived since childhood, according to documents sent anonymously to Monroe.
The photo, which has an October 2020 timestamp, shows Monroe talking to his girlfriend, whom he later married, during a stroll in a Neptune Beach neighborhood where he was living at the time. Neither was looking toward the camera when the photo was snapped.
In a third document sent to the Times-Union, a text message observes that Monroe is taking an Uber ride on a November 2019 day when he was in Pensacola for a friend’s wedding.
FPL said in a statement it does not surveil reporters, and if it wants to learn more about a journalist, it uses sources that are “readily available to any member of the public” such as social media and the Internet.
Eric Silagy, the CEO of FPL, told Monroe during an interview with reporters at the Times-Union office that FPL never directed anyone to watch him.
“I wanted to come up in person because it’s important for you to hear directly from me that we did not engage at all in any illegal activities,” Silagy said as he sat at a conference table with Monroe and other reporters. “We did not engage in any activities having to do with following people like you, Nate, or taking pictures.”
He said FPL’s only aim has been to “make sure we understand what you’re writing and reporting, and when it’s not accurate, to make sure that we give you a response.”
The documents with references to Monroe are the latest batch of anonymously sent records that have connections to Matrix.
The Times-Union and the Orlando Sentinel jointly reported last December that Matrix records revealed a proposal by the firm in mid-2019 to offer City Council member Garrett Dennis a job with a marijuana decriminalization organization, thereby removing from council a staunch opponent of privatizing JEA.
FPL has said it was aware of the plan but the utility’s officials “flatly rejected it,” an assertion Silagy repeated when he fielded questions from reporters at the Times-Union’s office.
“It never even rose to me because we don’t do business that way,” Silagy said of the decision.
FPL, which no longer contracts with Matrix, said it reviewed emails, cell phones and computer files to see if the utility had the background report on Monroe, the photo of Monroe or the text message referring to an Uber ride in its company records or any employee’s personal accounts. FPL said it found none of those.
Monroe frequently broke news on the potential sale of JEA, which would have been a blockbuster deal shaping Jacksonville for decades to come.
He wrote columns critical of the sales process and developed a broad array of sources for the newspaper’s coverage that drew praise and scorn from elected officials and community leaders. FPL has called the reporting “conspiracy-laden” as it relates to the utility’s bid for JEA.
The Times-Union stands behind its coverage of the attempt to sell JEA, Palka said.
“The investigative reporting Nate and other Times-Union journalists did during the JEA sale helped remind our community about the importance of a free press,” Palka said.
NextEra Energy, the parent company of FPL, submitted the high bid of $11 billion after the JEA board decided in July 2019 to put the utility up for sale. JEA canceled all bids that December after a City Council Auditor’s report in November revealed a JEA incentive plan would have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to JEA employees if a sale happened.
After the FBI investigated that incentive plan, a federal grand jury indicted ousted JEA CEO Aaron Zahn and former chief financial officer Ryan Wannemacher on fraud charges. Each pleaded not guilty in March.
Before the sales process fell apart, Matrix CEO Jeff Pitts emailed a lengthy background report on Oct. 24, 2019 with the subject line “Nate James Monroe – Comprehensive Report,” according to the document.
“On this. Shocker he is a democrat and completely boring,” the email from Pitts said, according to the document.
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The Oct. 23 report on Monroe found no criminal or traffic records, bankruptcies, liens or judgments among the many areas examined.
The document shows Pitts, who left Matrix at the end of 2020, sent the report to the personal email of Danny Martell, the vice president of state legislative affairs for FPL.
FPL said it has no record of an email about a background report on Monroe and “therefore cannot determine the veracity of the document.” FPL said it would not commission such a report on a journalist.
Matrix “has many clients and it’s more than plausible to believe that such a report was commissioned by one of those other clients,” FPL said. “If Matrix sent such a report to FPL, it was sent unsolicited. To be clear, we have no record of receiving such a report from Matrix or anyone else.”
Two weeks after the email of the background report, Monroe traveled to Pensacola for a Nov. 9, 2019 wedding and posted an “OK. Time to get drunk” tweet after his alma mater Louisiana State University defeated Alabama in a football game.
The document provided to the Times-Union of text messages shows that someone made a screenshot of the tweet by Monroe and texted it on the same day, and then sent another text that said, “He’s in an Uber” with a sad-faced emoji.
Monroe did use an Uber service that day, according to a receipt for the ride he boarded in front of the house where he had watched the football game during a wedding reception.
The document shows a phone number used by Martell as the recipient of multiple texts from Oct. 8 to Nov. 17, 2019 including the “He’s in an Uber” text.
FPL said in a statement it did not find records of the Uber text or any other texts contained in the document. Martell willingly provided his phone for that review, FPL said.
“Unfortunately, we have no digital records of those exchanges and cannot prove their veracity,” FPL said, adding it found “inconsistencies” in the text messages that raised questioned about whether the exchange had been “altered in some fashion.”
The third document that shows a photo of Monroe has a time-stamp nearly a year later on Oct. 14, 2020. Monroe said he had not seen the photo before the Times-Union received it and it shocked him that someone had taken the photo without him knowing it.
The photo did not have any other documents attached to it that would indicate who took it or had seen it.
Monroe’s then-girlfriend is standing with her back to the camera as she holds the dog’s leash, and Monroe is standing sideways while talking to her. Monroe said he’s familiar with the spot because it’s where he took the dog on daily walks.
Perkins said the examination of the computer server in the Birmingham office of Matrix found other photos of Monroe. He declined a Times-Union request for those photos.
The photo’s time-stamp is two weeks after Monroe wrote an Oct 1, 2020 column about records –obtained by a Jacksonville City Council investigative committee – that said FPL was considering possible contributions in 2019 to non-profits run by City Council members. JEA had told bidders that their “community commitment” through activities like charitable giving would be part of the criteria for evaluating bids.
FPL chief communications officer David Reuter submitted a guest column that ran in the Times-Union the following day and criticized the “conspiracy-laden” coverage by the newspaper of FPL’s bid to purchase JEA.
Mullaney, who worked decades in city government before becoming director of the JU Public Policy Institute, said criticizing coverage falls squarely within the traditional relationship between media organizations and those they cover.
“You can criticize an article, you can criticize a point of view, you can even say they have bias,” Mullaney said. “Those things are all fair game.”
He said “looking into someone’s personal background, looking at surveillance photographs, looking up who their neighbors are, that’s far beyond that.”
Interviewed at the Times-Union office, Silagy said Perkins, the owner of Matrix, has been giving documents to Florida reporters in an orchestrated campaign to tarnish FPL and put pressure on Pitts, who is locked in a legal battle with Perkins over lawsuits filed in Jacksonville and Alabama.
Silagy said Perkins is “very skilled at trying to manipulate public opinion” and reporters should “consider the source.”
Silagy erroneously called Perkins a "convicted felon" several times during the course of the interview. Silagy was apparently referencing a $5,000 civil fine the Federal Election Commission levied against Perkins in 1992 over campaign contributions made during a 1985 campaign, but an FEC spokeswoman said such a fine does not make someone a "convicted felon" because the agency only handles civil enforcement.
Perkins’ attorney put a letter in the FEC file in 1992 saying he did not admit any wrongdoing. Perkins called Silagy’s comment "false and defamatory." FPL, in a follow-up email, said Silagy "does not and did not contend that Mr. Perkins is a convicted felon."
Perkins declined to comment on Silagy’s assertion he is behind the release of documents to reporters. Perkins said he is not going to “address the question at all about how they got to reporters” but he would answer questions about the authenticity of the photo of Monroe, the background report on him and the text message.
Perkins said those match documents his firm discovered on a central computer server in the Birmingham, Ala. office where Pitts worked during his time at Matrix.
After Pitts left the firm and formed his own consulting firm, Canopy Partners, in December 2020, Perkins filed a lawsuit that contends a search of computer files at the Birmingham office showed Pitts had been running his own businesses that served Matrix clients while Pitts also was on the Matrix payroll.
Pitts then filed a lawsuit in Duval County contending Perkins threatened to release documents to reporters unless Pitts agreed to pay $4.5 million to Perkins.
Perkins, who works out of Montgomery, Ala, said he called in an outside IT expert to remove hard drives from the Birmingham office’s server. Perkins said the IT expert kept the original drives in his possession to maintain the “chain of evidence” and made copies for Matrix, which has been mining files from 2010 to 2020 and cataloguing them.
“I didn’t know who Nate Monroe was until we started reading about Nate Monroe on the files that were recovered from Jeff Pitts’ computer,” Perkins said. “Unequivocally, not only did I never direct or authorize anyone from Matrix to surveil in any way Nate Monroe, I had no knowledge that it ever took place until we saw the material on Jeff Pitts’ computers.”
In response to Times-Union questions about the documents, a spokesman for Pitts said Perkins has been involved in surveillance operations.
“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,” John Collins said.
“This is one of the many reasons Jeff left Matrix,” Collins said. “Joe is now leaking partial and misleading confidential client documents in an attempt to intimidate, harass and cause intentional harm to former employees and clients as part of a multimillion dollar extortion scheme.”
Matrix said in a statement that “Pitts’ attempt at deflection does not deny his involvement in the surveillance of Nate Monroe. Be very clear, Matrix had no knowledge of the surveillance of Monroe.”
Matrix said the alleged extortion scheme, which is part of Pitts’ lawsuit, is a “baseless claim” and the firm challenges Pitts to “provide a single communication” he received from Perkins or any representative of him that promises to keep Pitts’ behavior a secret in exchange for money.
Perkins said when the JEA sales process emerged, he ordered Pitts and others working on the Matrix account with FPL to avoid any involvement with JEA matters because he considered it a “direct conflict of interest” in light of relationships Matrix has with its other clients.
Perkins said Matrix has taken steps to ensure the files pulled from the computer server are archived exactly as they were discovered. He said being able to prove “nothing has been altered or doctored will be crucial, and we have gone to great lengths for more than a year to ensure the integrity of those files.”
FPL no longer works with either Matrix or Canopy Partners. The utility says it parted ways with Matrix about a year ago and had not worked with Canopy for about six months.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: FPL consultant obtained research on Jacksonville journalist Nate Monroe