A shadowy group with ties to rooftop solar has been accepted at face value by yet another media outlet in Florida, this time, Nate Monroe and the Florida Times Union. Monroe is the latest Florida journalist to rely on messaging from the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI) without questioning the group’s motives or funding.
EPI is a front group funded by mysterious donors. Earlier this month, the group’s top representative in the state, Broward Soil and Water Commissioner Alissa Jean Schafer, was the subject of an ethics complaint regarding her sources of income. She is required to file an annual financial disclosure that includes a listing of all income and its sources. According to the ethics complaint, she lists EPI as a source of significant income paid into her consulting company.
But an Alabama-based group called the Jobkeeper Alliance alleged in the complaint that two independent searches (one by a private sector attorney, and a second by the Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s office) both failed to locate a single record in any state in the nation that could confirm that the Energy and Policy Institute is a legitimate organization. Merrill has demanded that the group reveal its legal status.
Monroe’s opinion piece suggested that Florida Power & Light planned to make charitable contributions in Jacksonville that it hoped would support its effort to acquire JEA. The implication of the story was that FPL was trying to buy support for the deal. He quotes the dark money funded EPI as one of the entities supporting his thesis that utilities give charitable donations in order to influence public officials. His article gives legitimacy to EPI as “a watchdog group that advocates for renewable energy and clean technology.”
EPI ostensibly operates out of a post office box in San Francisco. Schafer is listed on its current website as a “research and communications specialist” and appears largely responsible for content in Florida.
Here’s the irony: EPI and Schafer have been campaigning against so-called “dark money” and “front groups” in politics, but EPI refuses to disclose where it gets its money. It calls itself a “watchdog group” and most media (which now includes Nate Monroe and the Florida Times Union) accept and report that at face value.
A simple Google search of the Energy and Policy Institute turns up some interesting stuff: Digging deeper, it appears that EPI is little more than a front group for the rooftop solar industry.
In fact, in a Sept. 11 blog post for EPI, Schafer took aim at State Representative Lawrence McClure for requesting the Florida Public Service Commission review the rules and regulations related to rooftop solar and net metering.
Shortly after Schafer became the subject of the ethics complaint, along came an alleged EPI co-worker named Daniel Tait as the next person in this PR relay to do the opaque work of the secretive group by writing a Sept. 17 blog post with the salacious headline, “NextEra Energy’s failed attempt to purchase JEA highlights web of murky spending, lobbying.”
It’s a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, not unlike what Nate Monroe did in his story citing EPI without questioning their own legitimacy.
It’s enough to suggest that there’s an organized campaign under way. Sometimes campaigns are overt in their goals. And sometimes campaigns seek to undermine the credibility of opponents in indirect ways.
Since this particular campaign may well be the work product of an elected Broward County official, it’s time that Floridians – particularly members of the media who are supposed to hold public officials accountable – start demanding answers from the likes of Schafer, and from her source of funding.
Who are the donors behind EPI? How much have they given? When did they donate? What are they expecting a Broward elected official to provide for them?
We previously asked Schafer for comment. We’re still waiting for answers.