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Commentary: Eric Silagy, FPL's chief brawler, leaves legacy of high profits but low trust

With Silagy's imminent departure, the hierarchy of investor-owned power in the Southeastern United States has been turned upside down.
Credit: First Coast News

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — This story was originally published by the Florida Times-Union.

COMMENTARY | Eric Silagy, the former lobbyist turned pugilist CEO of Florida Power & Light, one of the nation's largest electric companies and Florida's most fearsome power broker, will retire in May, the company announced Wednesday in an earnings call, a stunning coda to a scandal-plagued year in which Silagy and his company were connected to controversy across Florida and accused of doing nothing less than declaring a "war on democracy."

With Silagy's imminent departure, the hierarchy of investor-owned power in the Southeastern United States has been turned upside down. A year ago to the day, NextEra announced the retirement of its former CEO, Jim Robo. Months later, Atlanta-based Southern Co., FPL's primary regional rival, announced the retirement of longtime CEO Thomas Fanning, followed by an announcement that Mark Crosswhite, the CEO of one of Southern's major subsidiaries, Alabama Power, would retire at the end of the year.

What all have in common: they were longtime clients of Matrix LLC, a notorious Alabama political consulting firm whose leaked internal records revealed dark secrets last year about Florida and Georgia politics and corporate power. None of the four connected scandal to the departures of its top executives.

Silagy's departure after 11 years as CEO apparently took even corporate insiders off guard. His announcement came "a little earlier than I would hope Eric would have wanted to do it," John Ketchum, CEO of NextEra, FPL's parent company, said in Wednesday's call.

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Ketchum and Silagy both said the retirement was not related to controversies reported in Florida newspapers over the past year about allegations of potential campaign finance violations and dirty tricks — like placing perceived critics, including journalists, under surveillance — but the cloud of public scandal was impossible to ignore.

"2022, obviously, was a year with a lot of challenges. The distractions Eric went through in his prepared remarks, but when you think about all the challenges that he had to overcome with the hurricanes and with high natural gas prices and inflation in the supply chain and the media allegations and all those things" Ketchum said on the earnings call.

"I think it took a toll on Eric that year and gave me his retirement notice."

Silagy oversaw a period of aggressive expansion, and attempted expansion, of FPL's Florida empire, and by 2018 it laid claim to service territory that stretched from Florida's eastern most point to the western boundary in the Panhandle. More recently, NextEra has also begun looking to acquire water systems around the country.

Silagy secured rate increases worth billions and regulatory win after regulatory win in front of a Public Service Commission shaped by former Gov. Rick Scott, whose administration was marked by brutal frugality in matters of regulation and deference in corporate oversight. In Ron DeSantis, the company faces a governor more unpredictable and less reflexively friendly to FPL's interests, a fact made clear when DeSantis vetoed a reviled bill last year that would have made it less financially attractive for residents to install solar panels on their homes — FPL's highest priority out of the legislative session. But the company's bottom line remains strong, as does its near-ubiquity across the state.

Throughout his tenure, Silagy was ever unapologetic about FPL's network of lobbyists, massive political contributions and slick advertisements. None of that spending ever came from ratepayers — he has long claimed shareholders finance those operations — but he was not shy about arguing that perhaps ratepayers ought to pay for some of those expenses.

"The low bills and high reliability do not happen by accident," he once said in an interview.

Silagy has denied he or his company participated in the more extreme election-meddling schemes alleged in leaked records from FPL's former consulting firm, but he willingly acknowledged holding in contempt public officials he believes unfairly oppose his company. “I want you to make his life a living hell....seriously,” he once wrote to his colleagues about a Democratic state senator who had filed legislation Silagy believed undermined his company's bottom line.

Plenty of utility executives are glad-handing, back-slapping good-old-boys, happy to yuck it up at industry conferences. Not NextEra, the hungry shark coming for your power company. Silagy didn't seem to mind that reputation.

Over time, these traits developed into a reputation for hubris, something people I've spoken with over the years who have interacted with Silagy associate with him.

My own unexpected dealings with Silagy left that impression on me as well. It could have only been hubris, after all, that led Silagy to think he could walk into an interview with journalists from three separate publications and, with only sheer force of personality, talk us out of writing about a batch of leaked documents that showed employees with one of FPL's former consulting firms — Matrix LLC — were in possession of records indicating I had been placed under surveillance during a time in which I was writing columns critical of FPL's efforts to acquire Jacksonville's city-owned electric, water and sewer utility.

The records had come to us this past summer, a second batch of leaked internal documents from Matrix. The first batch made its way to the Orlando Sentinel in 2021 and had already helped shine a light on the close working relationship between FPL executives and consultants who were orchestrating a scheme to use "ghost" candidates to siphon votes away from disfavored Democrats on the ballot. Those records also revealed previously unknown work FPL's consultants were doing on the ground in Jacksonville, laying the foundation for the city-owned utility to get acquired by a private company.

In the interview this past summer, with no evidence to back him, Silagy suggested to us the new records might be fakes, even though we were, by then, able to discern the authenticity of many of them. He claimed the man who he believed leaked them to us — Joe Perkins, the longtime head of Matrix — was a bad person.

He suggested, again without evidence, that perhaps Southern Co., another Matrix client, could have been responsible for the surveillance of me, a breathtaking thing to hear one CEO say about a close industry rival. He repeatedly and erroneously referred to Perkins as a "convicted felon." When we pointed this out to the company later, after we had vetted Silagy's accusations, FPL simply claimed Silagy had never contended Perkins was a "convicted felon."

Only, of course, the interview was recorded. By us and by FPL.

Needless to say, this was not a performance I found terribly impressive or persuasive.

And in characteristic fashion for the Silagy-led FPL, the company's tone toward us took on a more defiant and threatening tone over time. It was clear there'd be no concessions, no mea culpa. No convincing effort to figure out what the company's role was in some of the schemes the leaked records indicated former Matrix employees carried out — at least no effort FPL will publicly share. The company has repeatedly claimed to have conducted an internal review of at least some of the allegations that have appeared in Florida newspapers, though it will only share maddeningly vague conclusions.

"Regarding the Florida allegations, 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 told investors Wednesday.

The leaked Matrix records showed Silagy led a company with little respect for the professional press and particularly for individual reporters who regularly covered his company's business and political dealings, and that he surrounded himself with people who possessed twisted views of the First Amendment and American democracy. They showed him involved in shockingly picayune, petty matters for the CEO of a major publicly traded company — like suggesting a "news" website financially backed by former Matrix operatives depict the Miami Herald's Tallahassee bureau chief, Mary Ellen Klas, as a pauper begging for money; the owner of the website, called "The Capitolist," complied, according to Matrix records.

The records also showed that deviousness is not always an indicator of competence: some of Matrix's work only served to embarrass Silagy, like his use of a pseudonym email account — owned by a "Theodore Hayes" — to communicate with Matrix operatives.

But enough of it was effective. The state senator whose life Silagy wanted to be made a living hell? Gone. His preferred man to lead the Florida senate? Got the job. His preferred party in power? In possession of a super majority. The price for some of it was public scandal.

Silagy is leaving a powerful company that can claim Florida's shimmering coasts its own, but he is also leaving with storm clouds on the horizon — signaling the future may not be so bright.

Follow Nate Monroe on Twitter @NateMonroeTU.

This story was originally published by the Florida Times-Union.

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