A freelance producer for ABC News asked tough questions to politicians. But she was really gathering dirt for a powerful consulting firm whose clients are some of the biggest polluters in the Southeast.
Illustration by Tracy J. Lee for NPR By Miranda Green and Mario Ariza for Floodlight and David Folkenflik for NPR A freelance reporter for ABC News used her media credentials to target elected officials who were trouble for powerful Florida industries, while being paid by a consulting firm that has represented Florida Power & Light and the sugar company Florida Crystals, a joint investigation by Floodlight and NPR reveals.
In one instance, the freelancer Kristen Hentschel falsely accused a central Florida office seeker of involvement in the deaths of more than 20 protected gopher tortoises at a construction site.
Interviews for this story and ledgers from the consulting firm Matrix LLC show Hentschel leveraged her connections to ABC News at least three times to try to trip up Florida politicians whose stances on environmental regulations cut against the interests of major Matrix clients. FPL declined to comment and Florida Crystals said the company was not involved in any way.
Internal Matrix financial records originally sent anonymously to the Orlando Sentinel and shared with Floodlight showed that since 2016, the firm paid Hentschel at least $14,350.
In another instance, the former girlfriend of the CEO of a different power company, Southern Co., says Hentschel cozied up to her. Southern Co. is a rival to FPL. This August, AL.com reported that Matrix had previously paid a private investigator to spy on Fanning in the summer of 2017.
According to two people at ABC News, Hentschel was not working on behalf of ABC during the incidents documented in this reporting. David Westin, president of ABC News from 1997 to 2010, says he never came across an instance in which a journalist for the network was simultaneously doing advocacy.
“It just goes to the very heart of why people no longer have the same confidence and trust in the news media as they once did,” says Westin, now an anchor for Bloomberg TV. “They suspect this is going on anyway, and for it to actually go on confirms their worst suspicions.”