How a political consulting firm worked with GOP operatives to buy journalists and manipulate elections.
Rev. DeVes Toon
Florida Power and Light (FP&L)
Let’s Preserve the American Dream
A Better Miami-Dade Inc
Justice for Florida
Concerned Conservatives SUPER PAC
Game Day Strategies LLC
Moms for Moderation Women Together Now
Truth about the Everglades
Our water our rights
Florida Crystals Corp
Floridians for Affordable Reliable Energy
Fix JEA Now
True Progressives LLC
Metis Group SUN Marketing and Advertising
Vision Insight Holdings
Third parties of note:
Targets / Victims:
This list is not all-inclusive. Through the outlined activities, dozens of reporters and public servants were targeted. The Capitolist also targeted critics of prominent Florida republicans outside of the scheme, of which the victims are countless.
Daniella Levine Cava
Mary Ann Klaus
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez
The Orlando Sentinel
The Miami Herald
Paul Tudor Jones II
Alissa Jean Schafer
Right-wing “imposter” news sites often take the names of legitimate-sounding organizations; think the “Alachua Chronicle,” which spreads conspiracy theories about COVID-19, elections, and partners with online troll farm “Rational Ground.” Its founder once claimed to have illegally broken into a secured Tallahassee facility to view death certificates before falsely claiming COVID-19 deaths were being misattributed.
Such is the case with “The Capitolist,” a pay-for-play online magazine that operates as a conduit for political interests to target those who threaten the Republican establishment or its corporate interests.
Brian Burgess, the former communications director for Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott and the creator of “The Capitolist,” became the object of multiple fraud, corruption and defamation charges earlier this year, but the connections with ghost candidates and Florida media agencies go far beyond just that.
Buying journalists and planting stories
The Orlando Sentinel documented how political consulting firm Matrix LLC bought a controlling interest in The Capitolist in September 2019.
“Meanwhile, Burgess pitched Matrix on even grander media ambitions, such as a $2 million plan to hire a trio of prominent journalists to lead a new publication — or even buying a chain of local papers, in order to use them as propaganda outfits.”
Like “The Capitolist,” “The Alachua Chronicle” and other real-sounding fake news websites, Burgess floated creating a new site called “Florida Topline.”
The plan, outlined by Burgess in a March 2018 email, requested $2 million from Matrix LLC to pay journalists already established in the media to covertly work for them.
Burgess had three recruits already in line: former Politico columnist Marc Caputo, and current Politico writers Gary Fineout and Matt Dixon.
Caputo’s reputation of doctoring government documents and attacking both scientists and critics of his allies (like Matt Gaetz and Ron DeSantis) has landed him in the proverbial dumpster of journalism.
Fineout regularly plants pro-DeSantis stories on Politico, and Matt Dixon covered the Matt Gaetz-Joel Greenberg scandal for Politico, further entagling the connections between DeSantis, Gaetz, and the Florida media “ghost operations” plan.
Yet, no real consequences for engaging in this activity seem to have developed for any of those writers. They still pose as real journalists, and their work is often cited in the national press.
Other emails leaked to the press disclosed a much more far-reaching influence in Florida media. One email dated March 9, 2021 from Burgess to Matrix LLC, Burgess laments that “Peter” was being paid by Americans for Prosperity - the dark-money PAC run by the Koch brothers.
The “Peter” Burgess was referring to was never fully named in the documents, but based on their public friendship and the contextual evidence, the journalists spoken to for this story believe Burgess was referring to Peter Schorsch - the founder of Florida Politics.
Burgess also suggested the company purchase several Gannet-owned publications and turn them into “Ghost Operations,” including the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the Fort Myers-News Press and 17 other papers across Florida.
Burgess wrote to Matrix LLC in an email dated April 16, 2020: “We could even do it stealthily so we could inject content into all those publications and nobody has to know who’s actually pulling the strings.”
And when journalists exposed allies of Burgess’ funder, like Nate Monroe’s piece detailing how FP&L strong-armed the Jacksonville city council members into signing off on shady business plans, they, too, became targets.
Matrix LLC “were shadowing the journalist throughout his critical coverage of a failed $11 billion purchase of a smaller Florida utility,” according to The Guardian.
Protecting Corporate Interests & The 2020 “Ghost Candidate” Scheme
Like imposter news sites, Matrix LLC and other dark money groups create legitimate-sounding political action committees, often falsely presenting themselves as progressive and grassroots organizations.
Democrats fell for it, exhibited by the more than $700,000 given to the dark money groups that helped Republicans win seats in the 2020 ghost candidate scheme.
The Orlando Sentinel brilliantly laid out how that scheme works here.
“I want you to make his life a living hell….seriously,” FP&L CEO Eric Silagy wrote about Florida State Senator Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, who wanted to help people bypass FP&L’s energy monopoly by allowing landlords to sell rooftop solar to tenants.
Rodriguez became one of three senate candidates that FP&L and Matrix orchestrated a ghost candidate against in 2020.
Matrix LLC worked with a lobbyist named Ryan Tyson to recruit another candidate against Rodriquez, along with two others, and then spent heavily on the campaigns, about $3 million.
Tyson, who runs a dark money group claiming to be a social welfare organization, provided the funding for the ghost candidate scheme.
The group, “Let’s Preserve the American Dream Inc.,” gave $30,000 to Latino Alliance PAC in the runup to the 2022 election, so they’re still in operation.
Latino Alliance’s major recipients this year included Ron DeSantis and Voters of Florida PC. Voters of Florida PC then in turn gave money to Latino Alliance, and so the money-laundering of the political circus continues.
The candidate recruited in the scheme, Alex Rodriguez, shared the same last name as the incumbent and ran third party against Jose Rodriguez. He did not campaign, and all advertising, mailings and materials were paid for and published via conduits of Matrix LLC.
Jose Rodriguez lost his re-election bid by 32 votes. Alex Rodriguez pled guilty to participating in the scheme, testifying that he was bribed by Frank Artiles (also charged).
Five people - Frank Artiles, Alex Rodriguez, Jestine Iannotti, Eric Foglesol and Ben Paris - were charged in the ghost candidate scheme, though neither Matrix LLC or FP&L were part of those indictments. Alex Alvarado, Dan Newman,Ryan Tyson, and Richard Alexander are also targets of the ongoing investigations.
However, neither Brian Burgess or any of the disinformation agents and their accomplices have been indicted.
And taking a page right of the cliche propagandist's playbook after the fallout, Burgess accused those who wrote about the corruption of being part of a “dark money” scheme.
And what was the cost of Burgess’ allegiance in spreading disinformation and undermining democracy? $12,000 a month.