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.)