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Florida Power CEO implicated in scandals abruptly steps down

Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy announced his retirement on Wednesday. The company says the move was not prompted by recent scandals.
Bloomberg
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy announced his retirement on Wednesday. The company says the move was not prompted by recent scandals.

Florida Power & Light, one of the largest utilities in the country, abruptly announced the retirement of its chief executive after a tenure marked by strong financial returns, moves toward greener energy and multiple scandals.

Under the leadership of Eric Silagy, 54, the company has been tied to allegations of campaign finance violations, media manipulation, and the surveillance of critical journalists. Silagy, CEO since 2014, will depart the company in April.

Its parent company, NextEra Energy, has commissioned two separate investigations - one internal, one by an outside law firm - following reporting by Florida newspapers, the non-profit news outlet Floodlight and NPR. Asked by Wall Street analysts during an earnings call on Wednesday whether Silagy's retirement was in any way prompted by those reports, the parent company's chief executive asserted that was not the case. "We're not making a connection," 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 disastrous hurricanes; and a barrage of damning media reports.

"I think it took a toll," Ketchum said Wednesday of the multiple crises. As for Silagy's departure, Ketchum said, "It's a little earlier than ... Eric would've wanted to do it."

Allegations of campaign donations to spoilers in close races

Media scrutiny of the company's political giving began shortly after the 2020 election, when a trio of spoiler candidates tipped close state senate races toward candidates considered friendly to Florida Power & Light.

Reporting by the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald tied Silagy to a group of political consultants who had spent millions of dollars to secretly further the power company's political goals. The money was allegedly funneled through a network of tax-exempt nonprofits that obscured its origin. 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 foil a ballot initiative that would have deregulated Florida's energy market.

"I want you to make his life a living hell ... seriously," Silagy wrote in a 2019 email to two of his vice-presidents about one of the Democratic state senators whose 2020 electoral contest was complicated by a spoiler candidate. The state senator went on to lose re-election by six votes.

Florida Power money flowed to sympathetic media outlets

Money from the company also covertly secured favorable media coverage, investigations by the Orlando Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Guardian, NPR, and Floodlight found. In one instance, leaked emails revealed Silagy even successfully suggested specific news coverage to one publication.

NPR and Floodlight also reported in December that people working at Florida Power & Light's political consulting firm had paid a veteran ABC News freelance producer to try to trip up politicians who took stances opposed to the energy utility's economic interests. ABC News cut ties with the producer immediately following that report.

NPR and Floodlight reported the same consulting firm did work in Alabama for that state's dominant energy utility, Alabama Power, and funneled money to news sites there that reported negatively on the utility's critics and regulators. Its CEO, Mark Crosswhite, stepped down in December. Its parent company had initiated an investigation of related media reports there. (Neither Alabama Power nor its corporate parent, Southern Company, have commented on those disclosures.)

An internal investigation clears Florida Power & Light of wrongdoing but more is to come

After an early round of reports, NextEra commissioned an internal investigation into the allegations against Silagy and Florida Power & Light in Florida. More recently, the company hired an outside law firm to look more broadly at the company's actions. NextEra officials say that investigation is close to completion.

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

The media reports were cited in an October 2022 Federal Election Commission complaint against several of the "dark money" non-profit organizations that received corporate funds. The complaint implicated Florida Power & Light in election law violations because of alleged attempts to obscure the source of the political donations.

At the start of the Monday earnings call, Ketchum, the NextEra chief executive, directly addressed the media reports and federal election complaint. "Based on information in our possession, we believe that FPL would not be found liable for any of the Florida Campaign finance law violations as alleged in the media articles," Ketchum said. He added that the company would soon challenge the complaint and call for its dismissal.

Silagy is to be replaced by Armando Pimentel, a former senior executive at NextEra Energy.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reported this story with Mario Ariza of Floodlight, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates the powerful interests stalling climate action.

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

Mario Ariza
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.