In March, Frank Artiles, a former Republican state official of Florida with close financial ties to the utilities industry, was arrested on suspicion of orchestrating a voter fraud scheme that helped oust one of Florida’s foremost climate advocates, former state senator JosÃ© Javier RodrÃguez. , a democrat.
According to investigators, Artiles allegedly paid an auto salesman with the same name as RodrÃguez to run as a third-party “ghost” candidate against RodrÃguez and his then Republican challenger, State Senator Ileana Garcia. As ridiculous as it sounds, it worked. The car salesman, although he never campaigned, likely siphoned 6,300 votes from RodrÃguez’s new campaign to secure Garcia’s victory.
Now new revelations suggest Artiles, the alleged mastermind, may have been just the tip of the iceberg.
This week the Orlando Sentinel reported that there was likely an entire ecosystem of corporate and political entities supporting fictitious candidates in the 2020 Florida State Senate races. Records reviewed by the Sentinel indicate that Florida Power & Light (FPL), the the nation’s largest electricity company, helped coordinate three separate shadow nominations – including Artiles – to bolster its own business interests in the state legislature. From 2016 to 2020, FPL reportedly completed a series of transactions totaling more than $ 3 million with Denver-based nonprofit “Grow United”, whose name was changed from “Proclivity” last year. In October 2020, Grow United offered $ 550,000 to two Florida political committees – “The Truth” and “Our Florida” – to fund the mass delivery of political mail supporting three unaffiliated candidates in Senate districts in three districts. . Thousands of these direct mailings – all of which included identical language calling “party line” politicians “puppets” according to Politics – the bombed voters.
It was “a coordinated black money effort to siphon votes from Democratic candidates,” Anders Croy, spokesperson for the Democratic caucus, Recount The Miami Herald.
According to Sentinel, a printing press linked to Florida GOP strategist Alex Alvarado, was responsible for producing the direct mailings themselves. By the way, Alvarado’s data intelligence firm has been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by political groups linked to Associated Industries of Florida, a business lobbying group that represents FPL.
Alissa Schafer, head of research and communications at the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI), a utility and energy watchdog, told Salon that FPL’s presence in this opaque network of organizations nonprofits, business and political committees was absolutely not surprising.
âThis is a huge opportunity for FPL, given the political landscape, to exert its political power over spending, building important relationships and making direct political contributions before even getting to things where it’s a problem. little more fishy and buried in the political committee levels, âSchafer said in an interview. âIf you look at the comments the company makes, for example, in their quarterly reports, they talk about Florida as being a regulatory friendly environment. And that’s very intentional. It’s the result of the work they’ve done. made to control the political environment. “
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Schafer, who has been following the apparent FPL scam for several years now, noted that the company has several levers of power when it comes to keeping the Florida legislature on the business side rather than the consumer side.
A lever exerts influence over the Florida Public Service Commission (FPSC), a five-member group responsible for regulating the business practices of utilities and telecommunications companies statewide. Much of FPSC’s job is to keep FPL under control, as the company has a monopoly on the state’s utility market. That’s why the FPSC decides what rates the company is allowed to fairly charge its customers – a process that involves detailed accounting of the company’s annual costs.
Throughout 2019 and 2020, the FPSC approved numerous rate increases for FPL, Tampa Electric Co., and Duke Energy. This week again, the FPSC also vote to let FPL raise an additional $ 810 million from customers in 2022 to account for the rising cost of natural gas nationwide. According to The herald of the day, FPL intends to increase the cost of electricity for its customers by approximately 20% over the next four years.
While there have been instances where the board sided with consumers, it is difficult to argue that the FPSC is isolated from corporate interests. After all, its five commissioners are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, which makes its membership a political product, Liz Veazey, director of policy and rural energy at Solar United, told Salon. Neighbors.
âWhen you focus only on profits rather than people, there is no limit to what utility companies will do to preserve their energy monopoly,â Veazey told Salon via email. “The substantial influence that FPL and Duke Energy have over state lawmakers and the governor … is reducing[s] the government’s ability to fulfill its oversight role.
In addition to lobbying, companies like FPL can also whitewash their interests through more public campaign finance channels. For example, while Florida prohibits utility companies from making donations directly to candidates, they can contribute to political action committees that align with pro-business candidates.
According to The Sentinel, in 2018 alone, FPL made $ 8 million in campaign contributions to political action committees. But donations like these, Veazey said, “are often only half the story and do not include all of the funds creatively channeled through political committees, political parties and even charitable donations.” .
The FPL, for its part, vehemently denied any suggestion that it financially supported shadow candidates.
“Neither FPL nor our employees have provided funding, nor have a third party provide funding on its behalf, to Grow United to support political campaigns at the state level of Florida during the 2020 election cycle,” company spokesperson David P. Reuter told Sentinel. “Any report or suggestion in which we have participated in, supported financially or called on others to support ‘shadow’ candidates during the 2020 electoral cycle is patently false, and we have found absolutely no evidence of any act. objectionable on the part of FPL or its employees. “
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Veazey told Salon that she found Reuter’s statement “elitist” and “absurd”.
“Their claim that they ignore how the money was spent is not an acceptable excuse for their funds to be used to wreak havoc in the democratic process,” she added.
This is not the first time that FPL has come under scrutiny for indirectly funding so-called bogus candidates.
In 2018, Florida State Senator Keith Perry, a Republican, was re-elected against Democratic challenger Kayser Enneking, in large part thanks to the candidacy of Independent Charles Goston. According to the Sentinel, FPL donated $ 14.15 million to a nonprofit political ad whose consultants were affiliated with a group that paid for ads supporting Goston.
As curious as FPL’s charitable decisions are, it’s not hard to see why an electricity retailer wouldn’t get involved in political fundraising. FPL faces a push for solar power on rooftops. Earlier this year, State Democrats introduced a bill that would have saved schools, businesses and nonprofits from paying millions of dollars in upfront costs associated with the solar installation. Solar United valued this bill would have created 25,000 new jobs with economic growth of $ 4 billion. Ultimately, however, the measure didn’t even get a hearing in the Republican-controlled legislature.
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FPL and solar energy advocates have also opposed net metering, a billing mechanism that allows solar energy users to collect credits for the energy they produce but do not use. Currently, net metering is legal in the Sunshine State. But that didn’t stop Republicans from carry out disinformation campaigns that overestimate the costs associated with solar energy. Utilities are also working to spread misinformation about the benefits of solar power, imposing outrageous interconnection fees, distorting community solar power, imposing unfair minimum monthly bills on solar customers, and blocking policies that keep solar energy affordable and accessible, âVeazey explained.
Part of the problem with holding utility companies accountable, Schaefer said, is that they play out for the long haul. So, connecting something like FPL’s stance on net metering to their alleged support for shadow candidates involves unraveling convoluted political projects spanning years.
“The process of [the] pieces together and understand this network of nonprofits and nonprofits that exchange money – it’s very hard to follow, “Schaefer said.” A lot of people say, “I don’t I don’t understand that stuff, that’s why I don’t like politics. But that feeling out there is one of the things that utility companies rely on. They know it’s confusing. They know. it’s overwhelming. Most people just want to turn on the switch and turn on their lights. “