FPL funds secretly paid for a spoiler candidate in a 2018 Florida race

Johnathan Burke needed help.

It was the day before an election pitting Burke — a 33-year-old first-time candidate who had turned his life around after a series of arrests — against incumbent Daniella Levine Cava for her seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission.

“Tomorrow is the day and I’d like to get ppl to the polls to represent me,” Burke texted his high-powered political consultant Jeff Pitts on Aug. 27, 2018. “Please get back to me ASAP.”

But Pitts didn’t respond to the message. Help never came.

Although Burke finished last in the three-candidate race, his efforts were still deemed a success, by one measure at least. In the eyes of his political handlers, Burke didn’t need to win.

All he had to do was siphon votes away from Levine Cava, a fellow Democrat and progressive environmentalist with mayoral aspirations who had clashed with one of Pitts’ biggest clients — Florida Power & Light.

Pitts wasn’t just advising Burke: He and a team of consultants were financing their candidate with funds provided by FPL — at one point covering Burke’s $60,000 salary and paying the rent on a $2,300-per-month home in Miami-Dade’s District 8, according to internal financial records, emails and text messages obtained by the Miami Herald, along with interviews and documents provided by others in Burke’s orbit.

Pitts’ political consulting firm was a conduit for millions secretly spent by FPL on political races since 2018, records show.

The plan in this case was to use Burke to drain votes from Levine Cava, who had clashed with FPL over its nuclear power plant at Turkey Point, and force her into a runoff against her main opponent, Republican Gus Barreiro, a leaked text message suggests.

It didn’t work, but it wasn’t Burke’s fault. In the officially nonpartisan race, the unknown Burke captured an impressive 17% of the vote — while Barreiro, a former state legislator, netted just 22%. That meant Levine Cava avoided the runoff and won the seat, a victory that would help propel her to the mayor’s chair two years later.

“Well that’s a respectable vote number for JB,” political consultant Abigail MacIver wrote to Pitts, her boss, in an Election Day text message. “If barreiro had done a decent job, our plan might have paid off.”

Pitts, then the CEO of the Alabama-based political consulting firm Matrix, tried to help Burke in other ways, too.

The documents show that Matrix covertly funneled FPL money to PDG Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based political strategy firm hired to advise Burke’s campaign. The payments were never publicly disclosed — in apparent violation of state campaign finance laws, according to four experts interviewed by the Herald.

FPL said it had no record of the financial transactions or communications in the documents leaked to the Herald about Burke and questioned whether they were genuine.

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David Reuter, a spokesman for FPL, declined to comment on the 2018 effort against Levine Cava. “We’re not going to comment on documents that could easily be fabricated and created in a few hours on a computer,” Reuter wrote in an email.

An attorney for Pitts said the records were “false and misleading.”

Over the past year, a stream of documents sent to the Herald and other news organizations by anonymous sources have exposed the efforts of Pitts and his team to manipulate Florida politics to benefit their client, FPL.

The records don’t show that any FPL executives had knowledge of or involvement in Burke’s campaign. Nor do they show that Burke was aware of the utility’s financial contributions to him and his campaign.

Eric Silagy, president and CEO of Florida Power & Light. [ Courtesy of Florida Power & Light ]

But they do demonstrate that Pitts was in frequent contact with FPL CEO Eric Silagy and his deputy, Daniel Martell, over the minutiae of Matrix’s strategies to secretly influence elections. In one 2019 email, Silagy commanded his team to make life a “living hell” for a state senator who had criticized the utility and would later lose a razor-thin election — ultimately leading to criminal charges against two people accused of trying to rig that race with a spoiler candidate.

Matrix and FPL’s elaborate operation relied on a network of secretive nonprofits, out-of-state consultants, and shell corporations to shield the nation’s largest electric company from being revealed as the source of millions of dollars in political funds. Recent reporting based on the documents shows that FPL money was secretly used to finance a spoiler candidate in a Gainesville-area state Senate race and to bankroll a supposedly independent news website that attacked the utility’s critics. FPL was also involved in private investigators tailing a journalist, according to the Florida Times-Union.

Related: Firm working for FPL took control of news site, let execs influence coverage, records show

While Gov. Ron DeSantis last week announced the arrests of 20 Floridians accused of voting illegally, his administration has given no indication it is looking into the political activities of Matrix and FPL, which were first exposed by the Orlando Sentinel.

John Jimenez, a former public corruption supervisor in the FBI’s Miami field office, reviewed the documents about Burke for the Herald and said they warranted criminal investigation.

“There certainly appear to be violations of campaign finance law,” he said.

The strategy for Burke’s campaign was laid out by PDG Strategies consultant Richard McDaniel in a memo written weeks before the 2018 election.

“Our biggest asset is the candidate’s bio,” McDaniel wrote in a July 9, 2018, memo to Burke and another political consultant. “[Burke] has a compelling story that resonated with a targeted demographic and will also help in persuading voters.”

In addition to being a Democrat, Burke was the only Black candidate in the District 8 race — which made him appealing to the voters key to Levine Cava’s political base.

At least three other election schemes tied to Matrix involved drawing Black voters away from Democratic candidates who were threatening Republicans friendly to FPL.

The payments linked to Burke and his campaign consultants are detailed in two ledgers, copies of which were leaked to the Herald by an anonymous source. The ledgers show how Matrix disbursed FPL’s money for work done during the 2018 election cycle, including payments made to various companies and nonprofits involved in media-messaging campaigns and state and local elections.

The ledgers show that Matrix sent more than $120,000 to Tarella, an Alabama-based company that paid Burke a $60,000 annual salary in 2017, according to the financial disclosure he filed for the county commission race. Tarella also agreed to pay Burke’s $2,300 monthly rent for a four-bedroom Cutler Bay home starting in 2017, according to a letter the company sent his landlord. Tarella, a communications and public policy research firm, was registered to a former Matrix lobbyist working with Pitts.

Several of the payments to Tarella are marked “Miami Dade Election” or “County Commission.”

All the transactions were listed as being made with FPL funds.

Burke, now 37, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He told the Herald in 2018 that he did “legal research” for Tarella.

In addition to the Tarella payments, Matrix sent PDG Strategies $12,000 worth of FPL funds to consult on Burke’s campaign.

Eric Silagy, the president and CEO of Florida Power & Light, along with Gera Peoples, the vice president and chief litigation council for NextEra Energy and David Reuter, the spokesperson for FPL met with reporters from The Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, and Floodlight News in a lengthly interview in Jacksonville on Thursday, June 9, 2022.

Kevin Harris, a former PDG executive who responded to a Herald inquiry made to the firm’s main office, confirmed that Matrix paid PDG to work on the Burke campaign. He said he was surprised the information was never made public by the Burke campaign, as required by state law.

“If we were not listed on Burke campaign expenditures, I have no idea why because we were definitely working on that campaign,” said Harris, now an executive with Mosaic Communications in West Palm Beach.

Burke’s campaign treasurer, attorney Jason Blank, said Pitts and Matrix never told him they had hired PDG. He said he would have reported the contribution had he been informed.

State campaign finance law requires that all campaign contributions and expenditures be reported by the campaign. There is also a $1,000 per donor limit for campaign contributions in local elections.

The ledgers leaked to the Herald were discovered on an internal server at Matrix, according to Matrix founder Joe Perkins, who says Pitts went rogue on behalf of FPL without his knowledge.

(Pitts and Perkins are now suing each other.)

“They went out and created a side business with separate books and used our resources,” Perkins told the Herald. “They did that in large part because they knew if I found out what they were doing, I would stop them.”

The Herald corroborated some expenses listed on the ledger with other documents and sources.

Spokespeople for FPL and Pitts have challenged the veracity of the ledgers. FPL says it has no record of ever paying Tarella, which is listed in the ledgers as “T Corp,” an abbreviation the company used in its corporate email address.

Reuter, the FPL spokesperson, called the ledger “fake” and said the utility also had no record of paying PDG, either directly or indirectly.

Pitts, who started his own consulting firm in 2020, denied any wrongdoing but did not explain why Matrix never reported the payments it made to PDG.

“Each week Joe Perkins leaks false and misleading information to the Florida media in his constant attempt to threaten and intimidate his former employee, Jeff Pitts,” said Jesse Dreicer, an attorney for Pitts. “Mr. Perkins is using his former employees as scapegoats.”

Perkins says he is not the leaker.

No records indicate that Barreiro, the Republican candidate in the 2018 commission race, had any knowledge of FPL or Matrix’s roles. He died the next year.

Once Levine Cava became mayor — the first Democrat to hold the office in 16 years — the utility had to make nice.

And so FPL executives sat down with Levine Cava after a Sentinel story late last year revealed Matrix’s involvement in a website called Keeping up with Cava. The website had attacked her during the 2018 race as an out-of-touch millionaire.

Over dinner at Caffe Abbracci on a Monday night in January, Levine Cava said CEO Silagy and Pam Rauch, FPL’s vice president for government relations, were contrite. (Levine Cava and the executives split the bill, the mayor said.)

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, attends the first Miami-Dade Commission meeting to discuss the Surfside building collapse July 8, 2021 at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. (Emily Michot/Miami Herald via AP) [ EMILY MICHOT | AP ]

“They were apologetic about what may have been done [and said] it was not done directly by them,” Levine Cava recalled.

But Silagy and Rauch had expressed far different sentiments in earlier text messages with Pitts — and they’d been more involved in efforts to go after Levine Cava than they’d let on at dinner, the messages show.

During the 2020 mayoral race, Pitts and his team published attacks against Levine Cava in the Capitolist, a seemingly independent publication secretly financed by FPL through Matrix and run by a former FPL executive.

“She deserves this!” Rauch texted Pitts in response to a Capitolist article ripping Levine Cava on June 4, 2020.

The following day, Silagy responded with a text to Pitts that simply read: “Love it!”

A progressive against solar

Johnathan Burke got his big break in the summer of 2017: He met Jeff Pitts.

It was one year before he ran for office.

“Very nice meeting you last night and look forward to working together,” Pitts texted Burke on June 12, 2017, according to messages obtained by the Herald.

Burke responded: “The feeling is mutual, Mr. Pitts. I am very excited.”

Burke had previously worked as a legal assistant and in internships, according to his LinkedIn profile, part of an effort to get his life back on track after a string of arrests as a young man.

Pitts at the time was consulting for FPL. The utility was fighting against environmentalists who wanted to encourage homeowners statewide to install rooftop solar panels.

The small city of South Miami, where Burke once lived, found itself on the front lines of this solar battle.

In 2017, South Miami’s commission, overseen by an environmentalist mayor, was considering an ordinance that would require all new homes to install rooftop solar panels — the first law of its kind in Florida.

A week after meeting Pitts, Burke rose at a South Miami commission meeting to criticize the new solar ordinance.

“I speak on my behalf and on behalf of a lot of people I spoke to in the community,” said Burke, who told commissioners he hoped to move back to South Miami and buy a home. “A lot of people don’t understand the mandate right now.”

The groundbreaking environmental regulation appealed to progressives in the gentrifying city. But as Burke alluded to in his meandering statement, some members of South Miami’s longtime Black community opposed the rule because they thought it would add to the price of home expansions.

Their skepticism was countered by Larry D. Jones, a contractor and South Miami bishop.

“Don’t be bamboozled … or duped by the lobbyists for FPL that have been beating up people for … 92 years,” Jones told the crowd. “The truth is you can save yourself some money under the solar energy component.”

The next month, the ordinance passed.

Spoiler candidate

Burke kept working with consultants for FPL.

When he ran for the county commission the next year, his veteran team included Pitts, Democratic political consultant Dan Newman (who was subcontracting with Matrix) and former Matrix lobbyist Paul Hamrick, who founded Tarella, the Alabama strategic communications firm used to pay Burke’s salary and rent.

The emails and texts show how the consultants managed Burke — all part of an effort to begin “stirring things up” for Levine Cava, according to a memo written by Hamrick outlining the team’s strategy for Burke.

“He is going to be a handful keeping on target,” Hamrick said of Burke in an email to Pitts. “I think he’ll be effective if we just have a plan we make him follow.”

Burke’s campaign platform was vague but leaned progressive. He promised to expand the county’s public-transit system, address sea-level rise, and “bridge the gap socially and economically” for residents. He made campaign stops around the South Dade district, which includes Homestead, Cutler Bay and Palmetto Bay, and has a sizable minority of Black voters.

He highlighted his personal story of redemption.

In his youth, Burke was arrested on a variety of charges, including grand theft, battery on a pregnant victim and drug possession, but was never convicted.

“I was blessed enough to have people who believed in me, and offered me a second chance,” the father of four told the Herald during the campaign. “Actually a second and third chance. … Maybe people who have gotten in trouble will see me and say, ‘Hey, he did it. Maybe we can, too.’ “

In August 2017, Hamrick and Pitts had helped move Burke into his house in Cutler Bay, part of the Miami-Dade Commission’s District 8, where Burke needed to live for six months in order to run against Levine Cava.

“This letter is to confirm our conversation this past Monday concerning the residential lease to Mr. Johnathan Burke,” Hamrick wrote under Tarella letterhead to Burke’s landlord, Rosa Acosta. “Tarella Incorporated will pay directly to you, or your designated entity, his agreed monthly rent of $2,300 per month.”

Acosta provided the letter to the Herald, along with screenshots of texts she said came from Hamrick, who she said described himself as Burke’s boss.

Emails from 2018 and 2019 show Pitts and Hamrick still discussing ways to cover Burke’s housing costs.

“Received text from Jonathan’s [sic] landlord yesterday, I haven’t sent February’s rent,” Hamrick wrote Pitts on Feb. 6, 2018. “The problem is I don’t have the full $2,300, Tarella has about $500.”

Pitts replied: “Just send me an invoice and I will take care of it tomorrow. Not a big deal.”

The next day, the ledger shows that Matrix sent $2,500 to Tarella, noting that the expense was covered by FPL funds.

Hamrick said Burke did legitimate work for Tarella and that he was not “hired or recruited” as a candidate, which would be illegal.

“Burke was a longtime subcontractor,” Hamrick wrote in an email to the Herald. “The ledger is wrong and was clearly created by Perkins to mislead the media, that’s just who he is and what he does. I have never received any money from Florida Power & Light.”

In August 2018, a Herald reporter started asking questions about Tarella and the $60,000 it had paid Burke the previous year. There was almost no information publicly available about the company, the reporter pointed out to Burke. What was going on?

The candidate went to his team for help.

Hamrick drafted an initial statement and shared it with the team. “I don’t know of any reason for the reporter to dig further unless the statement sounds to [sic] mysterious and covert,” he said.

Newman rejected the write-up: “I think it makes sense to underreact to this inquiry,” he wrote. He then sent Burke the wording that the candidate ended up emailing to the Herald within the hour.

“Over the last decade and a half, I have supported my family by providing legal research,” Burke’s revised statement read in part. “Tarella is a client of mine.”

Newman now says he only provided informal advice to Burke.

“In the spring of 2018, Jonathan [sic] Burke approached me to discuss running for office,” Newman told the Herald in an email. “When he opted to run for county commission, I distanced myself from his effort because of my support of Commissioner Cava and close relationship with members of her team.”

Despite help from his team, Burke’s fundraising was paltry.

County records show that Burke raised not even $10,000 — compared to Levine Cava’s nearly $530,000 in campaign funds alone and the more than $100,000 that went into Barreiro’s campaign and an allied political committee.

Much of Burke’s money came from people and political committees linked to Matrix and FPL.

Other funds came from Coral Gables attorney Joe Klock, described by Burke as a father figure, who represented another Matrix client, Florida Crystals.

End of the road

After his failed run for office, Burke was eager to continue his relationship with Pitts — and was still relying on the consultants for financial support, text messages show.

But Pitts’ responses became less and less frequent.

“Good afternoon Jeff. How are things going,” Burke texted Pitts on Oct. 26, 2018. “I have not heard much since Election Day. Should I expect to see or hear from anyone again or is this the end of the road?”

No response.

Pitts didn’t text back when Burke messaged — twice — to wish him a Merry Christmas. The consultant briefly responded to texts about Burke not receiving payments in early 2019 and to set up a call about Burke’s final rent payment to his landlord in Cutler Bay.

Burke’s landlord wanted to sue for damage she said Burke had caused to the property. Pitts instructed Hamrick to take care of the situation. “Chalk it up to a lesson learned,” he wrote in an email.

Then, on Feb. 27, 2019, Burke sent Pitts a farewell message.

“As you may know, Friday March 1st marks the conclusion of our arrangement and will be the last time I have to bug you about funds,” Burke told Pitts.

But more important, Burke wanted to thank the man he clearly considered a mentor. “I really appreciate the opportunity,” Burke texted. “It was a great experience. It showed me what I am actually capable of and sparked a[n] interest in public service that I was not aware of.”

Pitts did not text back.

Miami Herald Information Services Director Monika Leal contributed to this report.

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