Florida

Florida Power CEO embroiled in scandal resigns abruptly

Florida Power & Light, one of the country’s largest electric utilities, abruptly announced the resignation of its chief executive officer after a tenure marked by strong financial returns, a shift to greener energy and several scandals.

Led by Eric Silagy, 54, the company has been linked to allegations of campaign finance violations, media manipulation and surveillance of critical journalists. Silagy, CEO since 2014, will leave the company in April.

Parent company NextEra Energy has commissioned two separate investigations — one internal, one by an outside law firm — according to reports from Florida newspapers, the nonprofit news agency Floodlight and NPR. When asked by Wall Street analysts during a earnings call Wednesday whether Silagy’s resignation was in any way prompted by those reports, the parent company’s CEO claimed it wasn’t. “We’re not affiliating,” said John Ketchum, CEO of NextEra Energy.

The last year of Silagy’s leadership was marked by high natural gas prices; the global supply chain crisis; two devastating hurricanes; and a barrage of scathing media reports.

“I think it’s taken a toll,” Ketchum said of the multiple crises on Wednesday. Regarding Silagy’s departure, Ketchum said, “It’s a little earlier than … Eric would have wanted to do it.”

Allegations of campaign donations to spoilers in close races

Media scrutiny of the company’s political contributions began shortly after the 2020 election, when a trio of spoiler candidates dumped tight state Senate races on candidates deemed friendly to Florida Power & Light.

Reporting by the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald linked Silagy to a group of political advisers who had spent millions of dollars covertly promoting the energy company’s policies. The money was allegedly funneled through a network of tax-exempt charities that disguised its origins. The funds supported a total of five spoiler candidates in state senate and county commission races in 2018 and 2020, as well as efforts to thwart a ballot initiative that would have deregulated Florida’s energy market.

“I want you to make his life hell…seriously,” Silagy wrote in a 2019 email to two of his vice presidents, about one of the Democratic senators whose 2020 campaign was complicated by a spoiler candidate. The state senator lost re-election by six votes.

Florida Power’s money went to sympathetic media

The company’s money also secretly secured positive media coverage, according to research by the Orlando Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Guardian, NPR and Floodlight. In one case, leaked emails revealed that Silagy had even successfully proposed specific coverage to a publication.

NPR and Floodlight also reported in December that employees of Florida Power & Light’s political consulting firm paid a veteran freelance ABC News producer to try and trip politicians who opposed the utility’s commercial interests. ABC News severed ties with the producer immediately after this report.

NPR and Floodlight reported that the same consulting firm in Alabama worked for that state’s dominant utility, Alabama Power, and funneled money to local news sites that reported negatively on the utility’s critics and regulators. The CEO, Mark Crosswhite, resigned in December. Its parent company had initiated an investigation into corresponding media reports there. (Neither Alabama Power nor its parent company, Southern Company, has commented on these disclosures.)

An internal investigation clears Florida Power & Light of wrongdoing, but there’s more to come

Following an initial round of reports, NextEra has commissioned an internal investigation into allegations against Silagy and Florida Power & Light in Florida. The company recently hired an outside law firm to conduct a more comprehensive investigation into the company’s activities. NextEra officials say the investigation is nearing completion.

Last June, Florida Power & Light spokesman David Reuter wrote that the initial review exonerated the company: “This detailed report found no evidence of illegality or wrongdoing on the part of FPL or any of its employees.” This statement was made before further rounds of harmful disclosures prompted the investigation by the outside law firm.

The media reports were cited in an October 2022 complaint by the Federal Electoral Commission against several of the “dark money” nonprofits that received corporate funds. The complaint implicated Florida Power & Light in voting violations over alleged attempts to conceal the source of the political donations.

At the start of Monday’s earnings call, NextEra Chief Executive Ketchum addressed the media reports and the federal election complaint head-on. “Based on information in our possession, we believe that FPL would not be held liable for any of the Florida campaign finance law violations alleged in the media articles,” Ketchum said. He added that the company will soon challenge the complaint and ask that it be dismissed.

Silagy will be replaced by Armando Pimentel, a former executive at NextEra Energy.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik covered this story with Mario Ariza from headlighta nonprofit newsroom investigating the powerful interests blocking climate action.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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