She was an ABC News producer. She also was a corporate operative
Television news producer Kristen Hentschel was doing precisely what journalists should do on a searing hot day in Stuart, Fla., in July 2018: She confronted a politician with unwelcome questions.
Microphone and ABC News business card in hand, Hentschel rushed up to a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives before a debate, the candidate recalls, and asked him about 20 dead gopher tortoises that were reportedly found at a nearby construction site. Florida designates the species as threatened.
As far as the candidate, Toby Overdorf, knew, there were no dead tortoises.
And he would have known. Overdorf, an environmental engineer, served as the wildlife consultant to the construction project. Visibly flustered, Overdorf told Hentschel on camera that he didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Residents say they aren’t buying it,” Hentschel declared in the news-style video she later posted online.
A city investigation found no dead tortoises. In fact, it found no evidence at all that any of the reptiles had ever been present.
That wasn’t the only surprise. Though Hentschel has done freelance work for ABC, she was not there for the network.
At the time, a political consulting firm called Matrix LLC had paid Hentschel at least $7,000, the firm’s internal ledgers show. And Matrix billed two major companies for Hentschel’s work, labeling the payments “for Florida Crystals, FPL.” (Florida Crystals is a huge sugar conglomerate. FPL is shorthand for the giant utility Florida Power & Light.)
Both companies could have benefited from her efforts to undermine Overdorf and his promises to resolve environmental issues in the district he was vying to represent. Florida Power & Light has pushed back against efforts to bring solar panels to the Sunshine State, while runoff from the sugar industry is a major source of water pollution in Florida.
Floodlight and NPR have not been able to independently verify whether Florida Power & Light or Florida Crystals knew about Hentschel’s video. Florida Power & Light declined to comment for this story. Florida Crystals’ lawyer Joseph Klock says the company “was not involved in any way, nor was anyone acting on its behalf, in any negative attacks in any form, directly or indirectly.”
“It was an attack ad against my livelihood, my family,” Overdorf says. “And it was something that potentially could last far beyond my time running for office.”
Overdorf still won his election to the Florida House.
A journalist’s role in political dirty tricks
Interviews for this story and Matrix ledgers show Hentschel traded on her work for ABC News at least three times to trip up Florida politicians whose stances on environmental regulations cut against the interests of major Matrix clients.
Header featured image (edited) credit: ABC News card/NY Post
Emphasis and pictorial content added by (TLB) editors
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