© 2023 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

She was an ABC News producer. She also was a corporate operative

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A veteran freelance producer for ABC News has been reporting aggressively on politicians in Florida who promote clean energy and clear waters. But ABC says she's not doing those stories for the network. An investigation by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and Floodlight's Miranda Green and Mario Ariza finds that she was being paid by a consulting firm for some of Florida's biggest polluters. Here's David with the story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: On a searing day in July 2018, Kristen Hentschel appeared to be doing exactly what you would want a journalist to do - holding the powerful to account. In this case on Florida's Treasure Coast...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTEN HENTSCHEL: Word is spreading fast in Martin County that in a rush to develop the site for the local hospital's expansion of offices, protected gopher tortoise are showing up dead.

FOLKENFLIK: Twenty of them, to be precise. Hentschel's news story went viral. She tracked down the consultant charged with protecting wildlife from harm at the construction project.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENTSCHEL: So who is supposed to be paying attention? Meet Toby Overdorf.

FOLKENFLIK: Overdorf didn't stand a chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENTSCHEL: Overdorf didn't have much to say about the tortoise. If anything, he was a little choked up.

TOBY OVERDORF: I don't know where this tip came from. I don't know anything about it.

FOLKENFLIK: Overdorf says she gave him a card showing she worked for ABC News. More than four years later, Overdorf remembers how very smooth she was.

OVERDORF: Knew exactly what she was going to be asking me, never flinched. She reeled me in with some easy questions and then hit me with this.

FOLKENFLIK: Now, Hentschel is a former local TV news reporter, and she had legit been working for ABC's "Good Morning America" as a freelance producer since February 2016. ABC News wouldn't comment while we were reporting this story. But two people at ABC News with knowledge say Hentschel's presence on Florida's Treasure Coast had nothing to do with the network. NPR and Floodlight found Hentschel was paid thousands of dollars in that period by a political consulting firm. Invoices from the firm showed it billed two huge clients for her work just weeks later - the sugar conglomerate Florida Crystals and the utility Florida Power & Light.

DAVID WESTIN: It just goes to the very heart of why people no longer have the same confidence and trust in the news media they once did.

FOLKENFLIK: David Westin was president of ABC News until 2010. And he says the revelation of this episode will only feed public cynicism.

WESTIN: They suspect this is going on anyway. And for it to actually go on confirms their worst suspicions.

FOLKENFLIK: Hentschel hasn't responded to our repeated requests for comment. Florida Crystal says it has nothing to do with Hentschel. Florida Power & Light didn't comment. And the founder of that consulting firm, called Matrix, blames rogue employees. We do not know why or for whom Matrix paid Hentschel. But why would she care so much about a particular environmental engineer? Let's return to Hentschel's story for a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENTSCHEL: He happens to be running for the House District 83 seat.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. Overdorf was a conservative Republican running for state legislature. He was also touting tighter water quality regulations and other environmental measures. Florida Crystals and Florida Power & Light were battling related initiatives. Hentschel's video segment, as Overdorf notes in an interview, was perfectly crafted to shatter his green credentials as a candidate.

OVERDORF: I was rocked. Somebody makes this accusation against you, and this is something that once it hits the internet, it will stay there. And as a result, it's something that I'm going to have to deal with for the rest of my career.

FOLKENFLIK: Hentschel's story didn't run on ABC or local news. It ran on the website and YouTube page of an apparent environmental outfit no one had heard of. By the way, Hentschel produced a bunch of videos for that group.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENTSCHEL: Millions of people come here to the Gulf Coast every year because of all of this. But with these great assets come a big responsibility to protect the environment.

FOLKENFLIK: We have financial documents showing that a shell company set up by Matrix paid the group $55,000. Its online presence was shut down as soon as we started asking questions. The same summer she pursued Overdorf, Hentschel pulled a similar move on the mayor of South Miami, an advocate for solar power. Invoices show nonprofits linked to Matrix spent six figures trying to knock him out in other ways, too. And then, there's the Florida Congressman Brian Mast. Here's a Facebook video he posted in 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN MAST: A woman broke into our neighborhood, which is gated, came to our home, knocked on our door, presented herself as an ABC News reporter named Kristen Hentschel.

FOLKENFLIK: Hentschel wasn't charged with anything. She repeatedly sought to ask him about offensive, years-old social media posts. He gave us a photo of her card bearing the letters ABC News. ABC's political director emailed Mast's aide in 2020 that she wasn't there for the network. Mast believes it has to do with his push for legislation protecting greater water quality. But we don't know.

Here's what we do know about Hentschel's story on Toby Overdorf. A review by the city of Stuart, Fla., found no evidence any tortoise was found near that construction site, dead or alive. City officials say Kristen Hentschel showed no interest in reporting that. After this story first aired, ABC released a statement saying Hentschel was, quote, "a freelance daily hire who never worked for ABC News on these political stories." And it added, she does not currently work for ABC News.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.