Late this past Friday afternoon, two intent to subpoena documents were filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court that could — could — go a long way to exposing the slimy underbelly of corruption surrounding one of Alabama’s most notorious political consulting firms and the state’s largest utility.
I say “could” because slinging a subpoena out into the humid air of a Birmingham Friday as rush hour is cranking up isn’t proof of anything. But it is curious, and given the recent explosion of stories detailing the good times had by this same firm and Florida Power & Light, it all gets even curiouser.
I know I’ve been on an Alabama Power kick lately, but big things are happening right now — things even more worthy of our attention than even the best TikTok has to offer. OK, I might be overselling it, but there are some fascinating things afoot right now.
Much of this springs from the rift between Joe Perkins’ Montgomery-based Matrix LLC and his former protege Jeff Pitts’ Canopy Partners. These two merchants of political and corporate sleaze have made millions helping keep the big boys on top while hammering their enemies. For decades, Matrix was the big dog, building a client list that stretches across the country, but focusing most of its power in the Southeast. Perkins built the company, but Pitts eventually came along and showed great promise in the field of weaseldom, eventually becoming Matrix CEO.
But a couple of years ago, Joe and Jeff broke up, with Pitts taking key employees and some clients, allegedly going “Office Space” on a computer server on the way out, and forming Canopy Partners in Florida. Now they’re suing each other and it’s getting uglier than your Aunt Hilda’s bunions.
Over the past two weeks, there has been an explosion of news stories out of Florida detailing the way Florida Power & Light used Matrix to essentially take over a news website in the Sunshine State to help further their goals. The reporting, done by the Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel and a nonprofit investigative journalism website called Floodlight is very thorough and fueled by a large number of leaked documents from Matrix. Pitts says Perkins is the one leaking the documents. Perkins won’t confirm that.
Regardless, the news stories paint quite a picture of FP&L’s use of Matrix to quietly funnel money to various organizations for the purposes of advancing the power company’s agenda, or even keeping tabs on those who oppose them.
There was even a story that shows FP&L money going to a private investigative firm to have a reporter from Jacksonville’s Times-Union newspaper followed. At one point, the text messages between FP&L and investigators suggest they may have hoped to catch the journalist drinking and driving and were disappointed he took an Uber after having a few drinks.
One focus of these stories was how FP&L used Matrix operatives to take control of an online news site called The Capitalist, allowing power company officials to direct coverage. There were even allegations of a scheme to buy several Gannett newspapers in Florida, fire the “clown journalists” and pump them full of pro-FP&L articles. It’s all fascinating reading, for sure.
But most of that’s in Florida, right? Certainly, the Alabama-based Matrix wouldn’t have tried to do such things right here at home?! This is where it all gets more interesting on this side of the state line.
In the journalism business, rumors have abounded that Alabama Power has been a secret funding source for some of the web-based news sites such as Yellowhammer and Alabama Political Reporter. It’s not been totally proven, but let’s just say if you go to their sites and search Alabama Power, you won’t see any stories about burying coal ash in the Tensaw Delta.
It seems pretty clear Alabama Power has been subverting so-called journalism on the web in this state for a while. They actually have their own site called Alabama NewsCenter that pushes positive stories about the state’s biggest utility to other websites and newspapers around Alabama. Sometimes those entities put their own bylines on Alabama Power’s stories, making it look like they wrote it. Other times they credit Alabama NewsCenter, which, if you’re not clued in, sounds like a legit news agency.
I’ve asked Alabama Power if they’ve ever paid any of those aforementioned “news” sites to run their stories, but didn’t get a straight answer.
“Alabama Power values our relationships with media outlets across the state in sharing company information, providing advertising support and promoting community news, among other initiatives. We share content with media partners to aid their reporting on topics important to our customers, such as storm impacts and restoration efforts. As part of our larger commitment to help elevate Alabama, we also share good news stories of the people and businesses powering our state, striving to make Alabama a wonderful place to live and work,” Alabama Power’s External Affairs Manager Beth Thomas wrote back.
She also wouldn’t tell me how much of your rate money Alabama Power spent sponsoring the World Games in Birmingham last month, or even how much the company expects to take in from a new 5 percent rate hike. They’re kind of tight-lipped over there.
And that’s what makes Friday’s subpoenas potentially explosive. Canopy Partners plans to issue subpoenas to both Alabama Power and its corporate daddy, the Southern Company, that would force the utility to reveal what they’ve been paying Matrix. But they’re also demanding any materials gathered from “surveillance activities of public figures, groups or other companies” between 2015 and 2020. Canopy is also demanding materials gathered from the surveillance of Southern Company Board members, executives or employees between 2009 and 2020.
The subpoenas also seek to expose any communications between the utility companies and Matrix staff.
Maybe it’s just a fishing expedition, and who knows if Alabama Power and the Southern Company would even fully comply given the implications of evidence supportive of what the subpoenas are inferring. But still … given what Matrix and FP&L appear to have done together, is it crazy to think that playbook could have been used in Alabama?
We’ll have to see what comes, but as the Matrix v. Canopy lawsuit roars on, I think we can expect many stories far too hot for Alabama NewsCenter.