FPL Controls Your Energy. They’re Accused Of Controlling Your Vote.

FPL Controls Your Energy. They’re Accused Of Controlling Your Vote.

Third in a series

Is the Money you Pay For Your FPL Bill being used to change the outcome of Florida's elections?

In the last post we saw how FPL and the other utility monopolies have gotten the upper hand over the agency that is supposed to regulate them. That agency? Florida’s Public Service Commission. Their mission is to regulate the utility monopolies in Florida and ensure there are “fair and reasonable rates” for customers. But a closed loop of money and political influence has flipped that mission on its head.

As customers, we’re all paying for this. We’re paying for higher electric bills, more pollution, and less resilience and control in our local communities. Now, we have evidence that the river of influence peddling is flooding into our electoral system. The influence on our elections comes not just with donations, but also with a flood of misinformation aimed at swaying public opinion.

Florida Utility Political Contributions from Jan 1 2019 - Oct 30 2020. NextEra and Subsidiaries includes Florida Power & Light. Source: Energy & Policy Institute.

Is It Ethical To Spend Customer Money On Public Relations?

Of course, most large companies engage in public communications to create a favorable image for themselves. But the public relations onslaught paid for by the utility monopolies exists in a murky ethical zone. Why?

First, monopoly utilities make their profits from us, their customers. Second, we have no choice in who provides our electricity, or our water, or most other utilities. Since all these TV ads, flyers and other communications are paid for with customer money, we essentially have no choice but to fund these companies’ public relations campaigns—even if we might disagree with what these companies are saying. That is the ethical grey zone

And then: what if these companies use their profits to influence our elections?

2020: The Ghost Candidate Scheme Takes On FPL's critics

In 2020, Investor Owned Utilities (IOU’s) spent over $9 million dollars—money collected from customer bills—in election cycle spending in Florida. The vast majority of this spending was directed at helping Republican candidates and aligned groups. Florida Power & Light spent more than $5 million alone. Much of this money was spent on three Florida Senate races implicated in the “ghost” candidate scandal run by disgraced Republican lawmaker Frank Artiles.

These ghost candidate races featured some common patterns. They featured direct mail attacks on Democrats from out of state entities or recently formed political committees. They had “third party” or “independent” candidates recruited to run. These candidates would then siphon off Democratic votes by copying Democratic messaging, thus acting as “spoilers.”

In one case, the fake candidate shared a last name with the Democratic incumbent, State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, contributing to confusion among voters. Senator Rodriguez, or “JJR” as he was often called, was one of the most prominent pro-environment politicians in the state capital. He who wore boots in Tallahassee to symbolize the threat of sea level rise to Florida and was a consistent critic of Florida’s monopoly utilities. He faced a Republican opponent in his 2020 race, but also faced a mysterious “ghost candidate,” Alex Rodriguez. That race was so close it triggered a recount. Senator Rodriguez was ultimately defeated by a margin of 32 votes. How many votes did the fake candidate receive? More than 6,000—a more than decisive factor in unseating an FPL critic.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez was a prime target of the "Ghost Candidate" Scheme

FPL's CEO Used an Alias To Communicate With The Ghost Candidate Operatives

Email records show senior officials at FPL and their parent company NextEra were in direct communication with the consultants and contractors running the ghost candidate operation. In a surreal revelation, FPL CEO Eric Silagy (annual salary: $8 million) was found communicating under the alias Theodore Hayes with one of the operatives who masterminded the distribution of hundreds of thousands of dollars of FPL campaign donations.

This raises an obvious question. Why would the CEO of an electric utility obscure his identity to strategize ways to hide a trail of corporate donations to Republican candidates?

Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy speaks during a news conference, Thursday, May 2, 2019, at the FPL control center in Riviera Beach. (Joe Cavaretta / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

If you're an FPL Customer, is your money being used to support candidates you may disagree with?

The “ghost” candidates were (from left) Alex Rodriguez, Celso Alfonso and Jestine Iannotti. Rodriguez, who ran in District 37 and had the same last name as the Democratic incumbent in that race, was the most successful, drawing more than 6,000 votes in an election ultimately decided by just 32. He has since pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe to enter the race and been sentenced to probation. The others have not been accused of wrongdoing. (Jeff Weiner / Orlando Sentinel)

Many FPL customers of all political persuasions might not like the idea of the money they pay on their bills being used to support political candidates. This is especially true because FPL customers have little choice to “vote with their dollars” and take their business elsewhere.

The one option FPL customers have in reducing their reliance on this monopoly utility is to consider installing rooftop solar. Since installing these units takes quite a bit of capital, there are a couple of policies Florida has put in place to encourage rooftop solar. One of those ways is called “net metering.”

“Net metering” allows customers to sell any excess energy they produce from these solar panels back to the grid and receive a credit on their monthly electric bill. This arrangement helps customers pay off the cost of installing these solar units.

FPL is aware that this is their only real “competition.” And they have fought against rooftop solar for years. And now, since they have no competitors, they have a compliant regulator, and they’ve worked to get rid of lawmakers who scrutinize them, they have turned their sights consumers’ last recourse: customer-owned solar.

Our next post will tie all our threads together and show how FPL is using its clout in the legislature to maximize profits and control and minimize customer choice.