Tracing the Ties: Auburn University, Matrix LLC, and Alabama Power

Recent reporting by the Lagniappe, based in Mobile, revealed a complex relationship involving Auburn University, Matrix LLC, and the McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security. Auburn University is reportedly paying Matrix more than $1 million annually, with more than $800,000 of that amount tied to a contract with the McCrary Institute.

Matrix LLC, founded by political consultant Joe Perkins, is a controversial firm in Alabama’s political arena with deep ties to Alabama Power. It claims it provides services such as research, polling, campaign management, lobbying, and opposition research. Over the years, Matrix has been involved in a variety of utility scandals from Florida to Alabama

The McCrary Institute was established with a $10 million endowment from the Alabama Power Foundation and includes individuals with ties to both Alabama Power and Matrix. Auburn has been reluctant to disclose financial details about McCrary’s operations, raising concerns about transparency and fiscal responsibility, especially considering the Institute appears to operate without a budget. 

Auburn would not reveal who initially hired Matrix to work with the university or who was subsequently responsible for the company’s contract with the McCrary Institute, but the Institute maintains direct ties with current or former Matrix associates and current or former Alabama Power employees. Ron Burgess, formerly Auburn University’s Executive Vice President, handled Matrix’s invoices for its original contract and took Perkins to meet with Auburn University President Chris Roberts. Following his retirement, Burgess now works with the McCrary Institute. Additionally, a 2018 contract between Matrix and Alabama Power, made public by the Energy and Policy Institute, lists Zeke Smith, a current Auburn trustee and member of McCrary’s advisory board, as Alabama Power’s authorized representative overseeing its activities with Matrix LLC.

This backdrop makes Auburn’s substantial financial commitment to Matrix particularly noteworthy, given the university’s emphasis on maintaining a reputable image and that Matrix has no known expertise in strategic communications or cybersecurity.

 

Matrix’s History of Working for Utilities

Matrix LLC has deep ties to the utility sector, and has been involved in nefarious activities on behalf of companies like Southern Company and its subsidiary Alabama Power, NextEra Energy, raising significant concerns about its methods and whether regular customers are footing the bill.

 

Southern Company

In 2022, Southern Company found itself embroiled in a scandal involving the surveillance of its then-CEO Tom Fanning. Bloomberg reported in 2022 that Fanning planned to announce his retirement, citing sources familiar with the matter. Southern’s spokesperson stated that the timing of Fanning’s departure had not been decided and was part of a planned succession, unrelated to surveillance issues.

Questions swirled about whether the surveillance was orchestrated by Matrix LLC at the behest of an Alabama Power executive aiming to influence corporate decision-making and succession planning. This occurred in 2017, during Southern Company’s financial struggles with the Kemper coal project in Mississippi and the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia. Southern later sold Gulf Power in an apparent attempt to raise cash.

The Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) could investigate the relationship between Alabama Power and Matrix LLC in order to examine financial transactions, but its oversight of the power company has historically been lax. Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab criticized the Alabama PSC for being opaque and politically motivated, having not conducted a contested rate case, which determines how much customers pay on their utility bills, in 40 years. In other words, Alabama Power’s supposed regulators have not taken a hard look at the utility’s books since Ronald Reagan’s first term as President.

 

Alabama Power Company

Alabama Power engaged Matrix LLC in a $90,000 per month contract from January 1, 2018, to at least December 31, 2018, according to a copy of a contract posted online. The contract authorized Matrix to monitor environmental groups and regulatory boards, likely including the Alabama Public Service Commission. Matrix was also tasked with developing a grassroots database of organizations. 

Additionally, a contract with Perkins Communications LLC worth $124,000 per month from August 1, 2018, to at least July 31, 2019, involved monitoring groups impacting Alabama Power, including the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama AFL-CIO. Perkins was also responsible for promoting Alabama Power in the Black Belt region.

Moreover, Alabama Power benefited from Matrix’s relationship with several media outlets. Yellowhammer News and Alabama Political Reporter, ostensibly independent competitors with contrasting ideologies, were among six news sites in Alabama and Florida financially linked to Matrix, according to a joint investigation by Floodlight and NPR. Yellowhammer and Alabama Political Reporter joined Alabama Today, The Capitolist, Florida Politics, and the defunct Sunshine State News, as involved with Matrix and collectively reached an audience of 1.3 million unique monthly visitors. Many readers, including political professionals and business leaders, were unknowingly exposed to coverage driven by Matrix’s clients’ priorities, including Alabama Power. Internal Matrix documents revealed the firm paid at least $900,000 to these outlets between 2013 and 2020.

This media manipulation was likely part of a broader strategy to exploit the decline of local newspapers and the growing distrust in media, filling the void with content that served special interests. Former Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler noted that reduced press corps size has allowed entities with hidden agendas to shape news coverage, often to the detriment of public interest. This strategy ensured that coverage of Alabama Power at these sites was overwhelmingly positive, with many articles mirroring the utility’s press releases.

The public, thus, bore the brunt of these manipulative tactics, as utility companies like Alabama Power continued to keep utility bills high and fought clean energy initiatives while maintaining substantial influence over the media.

Alabama Power used front groups that were created, run, or contracted by Matrix, to advance its political and regulatory agenda. The Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy (PACE), later known as Energy Fairness, and JobKeeper Alliance were two front groups that advocated for utility and fossil fuel interests under the guise of representing consumer or worker concerns. PACE was incorporated in 2009 by a lawyer from Balch & Bingham, Alabama Power’s main law firm, and Matrix paid the salary of PACE’s then-Director Lance Brown and provided services to PACE. Internet records revealed that Matrix worked to revive JobKeeper Alliance after years of silence, according to the Energy and Policy Institute.

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