Joe Perkins, aka, "The Matrix Man"
Had it remained in the book, this chapter would have followed one called, "War," that told about the Siegelman administration's unsuccessful attempts to have me removed from reporting on the governor, and the subsequent pledge by the administration to improve its production of public records.
After Siegelman became governor, firms that provided computer workers to the state were compelled to hire lobbyists in favor with Siegelman and to donate to his lottery foundation if they wanted to win contracts. One of those companies, called Tech Providers, hired Joe Perkins and the Matrix Group as its lobbyist/consultant. It was while researching the computer services contracts that I became interested in Perkins and the Matrix Group.
Perkins and Matrix are still around, and continue to serve blue chip clients like Alabama Power. Here's the chapter:
“He has extensive training in the use of ancient weapons and is an avid practitioner of Escrima and Kendo. He also has had extensive training in the use of light firearms … (He has) run more campaigns for more politicians in Alabama than anyone else.”
-- Portion of short biography of Joe Perkins on an old Matrix Group web-site.
“I’d be scared to death.”
-- Perkins’ friend, Birmingham-Southern College politics professor Natalie Davis, when asked how she’d feel to be opposite Perkins in a political campaign.
The most satisfying result of the painful, exhausting work on the computer services contracts (stories I was working on in the early fall of 2001) was an offshoot story on Joe Perkins and his mysterious Matrix Group. It was less investigative than feature, and began as follows:
MONTGOMERY -- On a resume published on the Internet, a former employee of the Montgomery-based political consulting firm the Matrix Group stated that his duties included “client security and counter-surveillance.”
According to its Web site, the Matrix Group specializes in: “Communications - Governmental Affairs - Intelligence - Executive Security.”
At the end of a creaky hallway in a redecorated downtown Montgomery train station resides what could be the closest thing Alabama politics has to a non-governmental secret agency.
Though the firm employs researchers, a lawyer and several people who lobby the Legislature, the Matrix Group is primarily associated with one man: its founder, 51-year-old Joseph W. “Joe” Perkins Jr.
In political circles, Perkins is regarded as one of Alabama’s premier practitioners of “opposition research” -- the art of finding something potentially controversial about someone, usually a politician, then molding it into a message that can be put before the public.
My initial intent wasn’t to write about Perkins, but about a contract of which he was a party. While researching his role in the computer services contracts I came across another contract awarded, naturally, without hint of competition. The previous December, Perkins incorporated a non-profit called the Keystone Foundation, just in time for the administration to hand it a $200,000 contract to assist in the preparation and publication of a report by the Siegelman-appointed Early Learning Commission.
Maybe it was a story, maybe not, but to make that determination I needed to research the circumstances of the foundation’s selection and review its work product and bills. Had the administration’s weeks-old pledge of public records openness remained intact, this would not have been a problem.
I knew enough about Perkins’ proclivity for bare-knuckle political warfare to realize that digging into his business might provoke a response. There’s no such thing as an investigative story that doesn’t make me a little nervous – not for my physical well-being, but a natural concern about how people will respond to facing the sort of questions I must ask.
With Perkins, there was a greater than usual psychological girding, a recognition that if he felt under siege, he might respond in kind.
The administration ran the Keystone Foundation contract through the Department of Human Resources. In early October I’d asked the agency to produce the basic records one expects to find for public contracts. Also requested was an explanation for the failure to run the contract through the legislature’s contract review committee.
After a month of trying I had little to show for my efforts, chiefly because the Keystone Foundation bills were so slight on details. They did, however, show that the foundation was paying the Matrix Group $700 a month in rent and passing that on to the state; and that the salary of an employee for another Perkins’ firm who provided some work on the contract was charged to the state as well.
On Nov. 2, I called Perkins and explained what I was working on. We agreed that I would e-mail my questions, which I did. They were thorough but reasonable. For example: “Why should the state have to pay the foundation’s rent? Doesn’t the foundation have other purposes besides a contract for the state?”
Shortly after receiving my e-mail, Perkins called three veteran statehouse reporters and asked them to come to his office. I learned about the meeting and found that Perkins told them about my plans to report on the foundation. What in the world he expected those reporters to do about another reporter’s story was beyond me, and apparently them as well.
That was strange, but nothing compared to what happened later that day. A neighbor called me at work to tell me she'd just received a call from a man identifying himself as Bob Franklin. The caller said he was conducting a national journalism survey and wondered if she’d participate.
“I said I would, and he started asking if I read the Mobile Register and if I was familiar with Eddie Curran. I said I was, and that you were my neighbor. Then he asked me if I knew that you had been caught drinking in the Alabama statehouse, and if I knew that you were a serious alcoholic. I told him that I certainly didn’t know that to be true and that I didn’t like where this was going, and ended it.”
That night she showed me where she’d saved the caller ID. It indicated that the “national journalism survey” was being conducted from a payphone in mid-town Mobile.
She was, best as I could tell, the lone neighbor to be so polled by “Bob Franklin.” I suspect that the caller was a Perkins' minion, and that the Matrix Man was looking for one hit, with the expectation that it would be reported to me. I believe his intention wasn’t to harm my reputation but to intimidate or piss me off, perhaps with the hope of inciting another outburst like the one months before against Siegelman press aide Rip Andrews. In truth I was less angry than bemused.
I drafted a memo for my editors, but didn’t say a word to Perkins. This was mind-game time. Mentioning the call to Perkins would have been tantamount to accusing him of involvement in it. He would deny it and possibly try to scotch the story by arguing to my editors or our lawyers that any future reporting by me about him would be tainted by revenge.
Investigating the matrix meant getting sucked into it, but better to think like Perkins than get burned by him.
I don’t know for certain that he was behind the call. Because of the timing and his reputation I suspect so. Possibly “Bob Franklin” knew I was working on the story, wanted me off and didn’t tell Perkins, or there was another motive entirely.
The call was in any event an unusual example of hard-ball, and like none I'd ever experienced.
The next week Perkins e-mailed to report that the arrangement with the Keystone Foundation was not a contract but a “grant." As such, or so he claimed, it was not subject to approval by the contract review committee. Be it contract, grant or handshake agreement, I still had a right to review the work for which the state paid. Perkins and I went back and forth, me trying on one hand not to infuriate him but also seeking a reasonable level of supporting documentation for the payments to the foundation.
I told him I’d repeatedly tried to get the records from Department of Human Resources (DHR), and noted that the contract required the foundation to maintain all records on the project in the event of an audit. Could I come by and review them?
To that, a no, and then some. “Mr. Curran, if you write that our reporting (to DHR) was incomplete while the state says it is complete, then we will take action against you and your paper,” he responded with his first but not last threat of litigation.
The foundation had produced an attractive, professional brochure containing the Early Learning Commission’s report, but at $200,000? I remember thinking I needed to quit my job and get some of that action. I could do the copy-writing in my sleep, outsource the pretty design and printing work, and at half the foundation’s price, walk home with more money than I made in a year.
I suppose Perkins thought I was picking on him. I wasn’t, but can understand how it might have appeared that way. I had never called him before, and here I was asking about Keystone, his “consulting” for Tech Providers, and Matrix.
On one level his responses were funny. When I asked to see the Keystone Foundation's 990 – the tax returns non-profits must file and make available to the public – he said it wasn’t due for eight months. “When in July would you like to see this documentation?” he asked.
Late in the game, Perkins tried to create a new obstacle. He declared that Matrix’s number two man, Jeff Pitts, was the firm’s president. As such, all my questions should be addressed to Pitts. “I don’t answer questions about other people’s business even if you put them in writing,” Perkins said, and for the second time, threatened to sue. (See letter below.)
We decided to include Perkins’ threats in the story. My editor, Paul Cloos, often fashioned "nut graphs" for stories. He may have written the following paragraphs. They read more like Paul than me:
Skilled at dealing with reporters and with the reputations of others, Perkins appears protective of his own portrayal in the media.
He’ll tell you his relationships with politicians and government officials are no one’s business, nor is the nature of the work he does for his clients. He’ll tell you he has spent countless hours of his time and traveled at his own expense to improve education in the state.
In responding to questions by the Mobile Register, submitted in writing at his direction, Perkins also was not shy to threaten litigation. “Your questions are becoming harassment. I will soon take legal action against you to stop this harassment,” he wrote last week. On another recent occasion, he accused the Register of “journalistic terrorism” in the newspaper’s pursuit of information about a state grant awarded to a foundation he controls.
I was persistent but polite, and – again, the Rip-incident much on my mind -- girded against letting Perkins provoke me. “When a reporter does a story, he/she has to ask questions,” I explained dutifully, in an e-mail to Perkins. “The alternative is to write about someone, or a business, and not give them an opportunity to respond. You had told me to put my questions in writing, so that is what I did.”
I promised to submit future questions to Pitts. I did, only to be told he was out of town and unavailable for comment.
By this time I was tired of fighting for the damn Keystone Foundation records, and the story hadn’t really gelled. I decided to punt on the foundation and instead, write about Perkins.
The first thing you noticed about Perkins’ e-mails was the sender name -- “Sensei.” This was, as Google revealed, Japanese for teacher, and jibed with his passion for martial arts and eastern philosophy.
I asked around for people who would speak well of Perkins and among the two I quoted was Natalie Davis, the former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and a frequently cited commentator on the state political scene. She proved quite insightful and I thought the following a good addition to the story:
Birmingham-Southern College politics professor Natalie Davis, who has done polling for Perkins, called him an “absolute idealist who reads ‘The Art of War’ on a regular basis.”
“Winning is everything in this book,” she said, of the 2,000-year-old Chinese classic on warfare. “It is about how to win. Joe approaches every project that way, and he works very, very hard.”
Asked if Perkins’ work for candidates could be called dirty politics, as detractors say, Davis hesitated. “I don’t know if I would say he’s dirty,” she said. “I think he would be more likely to say that the means justify the ends.”
According to Davis, Perkins is a former Baptist minister who is “very, very religious and a highly moral person.”
“If Joe was on my side, I would trust him with my life,” Davis said.
And if not?
“I’d be scared to death.”
As, were Davis to find herself opposite Perkins, he’d want her to feel. He and the spookily-named "Matrix Group" thrive on the assumption that it has all the negative information there is to know about everyone that matters, and won’t hesitate to use it.
At the June 2000 criminal trial of Jasper lawyer Garve Ivey, prosecutors subpoenaed Perkins to testify about his part in the 1998 effort to publicize claims against Steve Windom by Mobile prostitute Melissa Myers. They used Perkins turn on the stand to educate jurors in a standard activity of modern political campaigns.
“Opposition research is, essentially, when we take, whether it’s a political candidate, a company that one of our commercial clients might be competing against, or any other entity, and we search all public and legal records to create a profile of that individual or that company from the things that you can find in public records … Every political campaign conducts opposition research. Some do it in a small way. Some others do it in a large way, but every campaign does opposition research,” Perkins said.
He priced a “comprehensive piece of research” at between $8,000 and $10,000.
Our story noted that “when initiating a piece of research, the Matrix Group’s first stop may well be its own ready-made sources … The Register was told by several people familiar with the firm that it maintains up-to-date records of political contributions in Alabama.”
Also reported was that once a year Matrix spends hundreds of dollars to buy copies of the financial disclosures of every legislator and state constitutional officer. I knew this because I went to the ethics commission and asked to see Matrix’s requests. One, made days before my visit, knocked me sideways. On the portion of the forms where you identify the officials whose reports you wish to view, Thomas Kirkland -- identified as vice president of research for Matrix – scribbled, “Eddie Curran.” He wanted all requests by me since 1999. (See record below.)
I wasn’t blind to the irony, but thought it revealing, so tossed this into the story: “In mid-November, after the Register contacted Perkins about stories it was pursuing, a Matrix Group employee went to the ethics commission’s office and reviewed requests dating back to 1999 that were made by the Register reporter who was working on the stories, commission records show.”
After publication of the story I was contacted by a Perkins’ detractor who seemed to know his subject well. “People are scared of Joe Perkins,” wrote the man, who apparently included himself in that group. He used an alias -- Yuo Wesh – and the e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“He can ruin the life of someone trying to scratch out a living in Alabama. I’ve seen it. I can only think of a few people who would butt heads with him. When you first started poking around people started reporting in to Joe. He was getting reports of your activities about every day, but you did manage to scare him pretty bad.”
So strange was the whole Matrix thing that I considered the possibility that Yuo Wesh was Perkins trying to draw me out and say something I would regret. Paranoid, maybe, as was my purchase of a shredder. I had no trouble imagining Matrix resorting to garbology to score financial or personal information on a subject.
Perkins avoids publicity, but sometimes the limelight finds him.
Though he managed to dodge most of the flak, his role in one of the most lurid dirty tricks in state political history was revealed during the Garve Ivey trial.
In the 1998 race for lieutenant governor, Ivey and the trial lawyers association were backing Democratic state senator Dewayne Freeman. Control of the state senate was in the balance, the tort reform wars were still raging, and defeating Republican nominee Steve Windom was a must.
In the spring of that year, Melissa Myers, a Mobile prostitute, went to Birmingham to seek a job with a staffing company. As company owner Scott Nordness later recalled it, Myers actually revealed during the job interview that she'd been a prostitute.
“During the interview, she made a comment of how she use to be a hooker and now she preaches about being a hooker and I asked her the silly question of did she ever sleep with anybody famous," Nordness was to recall.
Nordness said he "asked her the silly question of did she ever sleep with anybody famous."
Myers -- who probably could have benefitted from a bit of job interview coaching -- told Nordness she'd provided her services to more than 1,000 men. Many were well known, including, she said, a customer named Steve Windom.
According to Nordness, Myers said that in her final encounter with Windom, in 1993, he beat her and broke her arm. It was later revealed that her ex-husband broke her arm; and that Myers paid her niece $400 to claim that she too was a prostitute and had also serviced Windom. The niece came clean to investigators and Myers later said she made the story up.
Nordness had seen political gold in Myers’ story. He passed it to his trial lawyer friends, spawning Ivey’s involvement. Investigators hired by Ivey videotaped Myers telling the Windom story in a dazed monotone. Nordness paid Myers $3,200 for doing the video -- a cost for which Ivey reimbursed him.
Ivey had the dynamite, but needed a pro to advise him on the best way to detonate it. Enter Perkins.
Perkins testified that he was summoned to the trial lawyers association headquarters, shown the video and asked how best to disseminate Myers’ tale. He presented his clients with three options. They could leak it to a reporter, but “only the worst journalist” would run a story containing charges that grave based on the word of a prostitute. The second option: Use the tape in a television ad. Problem there was they would need substantially more proof supporting Myers’ story before doing that.
The third and best choice: Have Myers sue Windom..
Then, Ivey et.al. could piggy-back on the news value of the lawsuit.
“Clearly, the filing of the lawsuit does not give credibility to the charge,” Perkins testified. “It gives a platform to make the charge. I think that’s what being able to file a lawsuit is all about.”
It was one thing for Perkins to rate the veracity requirements of negative political campaign ads above those of a lawsuit, but quite another for his clients – attorneys all – to agree with him.
On Sept. 11, 1998, an attorney recruited by Ivey filed the lawsuit in Mobile County Circuit Court.
Perkins directed his clients to notify him as soon as the lawsuit was filed. Upon receiving the call, he drafted a press release. Matrix faxed the release and the lawsuit to 300 people and organizations throughout the state, including state media outlets. To the media, Matrix also distributed copies of the Myers’ videotape.
Had Perkins displayed the level of acumen for which he’s credited he would have advised Ivey to stay away from Myers and destroy the video. His recommendation to fashion her claims into a lawsuit backfired dramatically.
Windom immediately countersued, claiming, among other things, that he'd never seen Myers in his life. Ivey was promptly unmasked as the puppeteer behind the lawsuit. A criminal investigation ensued, leading to Ivey being charged with criminal defamation, bribery and witness tampering.
Contrary to Perkins’ prediction, the press coverage focused less on Myers’ claims than on the sleaze factor of the lawsuit and in unmasking those behind it. Matrix screwed up doubly by distributing the video. That allowed reporters to watch the dead-eyed, brain-fried and clearly unstable Myers tell her story.
Seeing and hearing her destroyed what little credibility she might have retained as a plaintiff prostitute making such claims so many years after the alleged act. To borrow a phrase from Perkins, “only the worst journalist” could grant credibility to Myers’ after viewing the video.
Freeman lost the election by one percentage point. If not for the Myers’ fiasco, he almost surely would have defeated Windom, giving the Democrats both the governor's office (Siegelman having defeated Fob James) and the lieutenant governor's office.
The jury convicted Ivey but the state Supreme Court, citing a host of technicalities, overturned the verdict. Ivey later settled Windom’s lawsuit against him, terms undisclosed.
The affair was not a high point in the career of a man who has cultivated a reputation as a sophisticated molder of messages.
As Perkins told the Ivey jurors, the thesis of his doctorate was the psychology of communication, or more specifically, “how people respond to the media.”
After our story, Siegelman complained that we had unfairly linked him to Perkins. The governor said he hadn’t had a professional connection to Perkins since his 1986 campaign for attorney general.
This was malarkey. As we reported, Matrix had provided campaign consulting to Siegelman backers including the state Democratic Party, the Alabama Nursing Home Association and the trial lawyers association, all major Siegelman supporters. The campaign to pass the Siegelman-backed Amendment One referendum also retained Matrix for public relations and advertising.
The previous June -- a month after the G.H. Construction stories and the ensuing cabinet upheaval -- Nick Sellers left Matrix to become Siegelman’s policy director. The next month Hamrick traveled in the other direction. After his removal as chief of staff, he took a job at Matrix. Several months later, Finance Director Henry Mabry’s wife went to work a company co-owned by Perkins and in the same office complex as the Matrix Group.
In 2000, Siegelman had appointed Perkins to chair a task force to consider tax breaks for the coal industry. The Matrix boss had more than a passing interest in coal. He was, had been for years, a political consultant for Alabama Power, obviously the state’s largest user of coal. Perkins, like Siegelman, was close with power company president Elmer Harris, at the time one of the state’s dominating political figures.
I made it a regular practice to go the Public Service Commission once a year to get copies Alabama Power’s annual filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee. FERC reports, as they’re known, are an invaluable source for finding how much utilities pay for political, advertising and other services. The filings allowed us to report that in 1999 alone the utility paid Matrix’s sister company – Perkins Communications – more than $900,000 for public relations and government affairs services.
As much as anything in the story, that detail told readers that this Perkins guy was a large-scale player worth knowing about.
The Matrix Man piece also included a telling nugget from a story reported the previous year by the Register: That Foley lawyer Narissa Nelson had hired Matrix to help her win an appointment to fill a vacated position as a Baldwin County district judge.
Perkins told our reporter he had simply advised Nelson on the process; never mentioned her to Siegelman; and provided similar services for others seeking gubernatorial judicial appointments.
It was bad enough that companies seeking to do business with the state felt compelled to make contributions and hire Siegelman cronies as consultants and lobbyists, but judicial appointees?
It is unlikely that Nelson, down in Foley, could have known about the Matrix Group without being told by God knows who that hiring the firm would help her get the job.
Nelson did as directed, and Siegelman picked her.
The Perkins feature was not only fair, but considering where I could have taken it, restrained. After my inquiries into Perkins became known someone faxed us pages from a since-deleted Matrix Group web-site. I used very little – the bit about Perkins being an “avid practitioner or Escrima and Kendo” and a line touting his “extensive training in the use of light firearms.” But that didn’t begin to convey the tone of the web-page.
Its elements fit into two categories: overheated ersatz CIA lingo, and so preposterous as to suggest the author was smoking something not sold in stores. One can only imagine the reaction of prospective clients to discovering that Matrix could provide the services of a contraption called, “Cyber-Man.”
From the web-site:
Cyber-man is the product of “Operation Safe Space,” a worldwide government-funded project spearheaded by Matrix Group Inc. “Operation Safe Space” has been in the works for the past ten years. This highly secure project was developed to prevent the third world war, the war of Cyberspace. The governments are well aware that the next world war will be a war of technology – a Cyber-war. Therefore, Cyber-Man was developed to prevent this war or any terrorist attacks on the Cyber-World. Involved in the creation of Cyber-Man were the highly-trained specialists of every technological field: NASA engineers, MIT engineers, all branches of Special Forces, and many from other countries who have requested anonymity.
This 21st century superman wore a high-tech back-pack; a breastplate with the “Matrix logo”; an “eyescope” with X-ray vision; and a contraption strapped to its neck that “translates his voice into any known language emits a high pitch sonar frequency.” The high-pitch frequency served “weaponry purposes.”
And there was plenty more where that came from.
On the serious side – one should say, deadly serious – Matrix reminded potential clients that “professional training is the key to surviving a life or death situation.”
Firm employees – or so touted the web-page – were trained in, among other black arts: “methods of entry”; “non-lethal force (ASP baton, chemical spray, etc.)”; “telephone intercept”; “electronic tracking”; and “eavesdropping countermeasures.”
"Matrix operatives” had provided “protection and hardening” of U.S. embassies around the world.
“A Matrix Emergency Action Team – MEAT – stands ready to deploy as special situation arise.”
And there was plenty more where that came from, too.
Before me were the makings to make asses of Perkins and Matrix. Considering his philosophy of political combat, an argument could be made that he deserved it. However, that wasn’t the purpose of the story, and I didn’t for a moment believe Perkins authored the web-site. It was obviously the work of a computer nerd employee having too much fun for his own good and reveling in Matrix’s melodramatic reputation for intrigue and espionage.
I couldn’t have used any of it without confirming its veracity. It was no longer on the Internet and fabrication was a possibility. In such situations, its best to go to the subject of inquiry and pose questions in a manner that assumes the accuracy of the information or existence of records.
When approaching someone of Perkins’ media savvy, you wouldn’t ask it like this: “Joe, we were faxed pages of what were represented as being from an old Matrix's web-site. They describe, among other things, a contraption called Cyber-Man. Did y’all really have such a web-site?”
Perkins might recognize that the embarrassing material couldn’t be used without his confirmation and deny there ever was such a web-site. It wouldn’t matter if I believed him or not. I couldn’t use it.
I don’t recall my question, but it was along the lines of, “Joe, I see from Matrix old web-site that you were an ‘avid practitioner of Escrima and Kendo.’ What are Escrima and Kendo?”
When I asked it – for this was one of our few, brief phone conversations -- I could feel the wind go out of him.
“I never talk about myself. I mean, it’s puffing, it’s boastful,” Perkins said, adding – and this is what I really needed -- that the "Cyber-Man" version of Matrix's web-site was “moribund.”
I was proud of the Perkins story. He was a fascinating and influential player in state politics all but unknown outside Montgomery, and we had used unorthodox means to reveal details about a man and a firm that prided itself on secrecy.
Among other things, the piece incorporated his Japanese e-mail name; portions of an employee’s resume; the old Matrix web-page; Perkins’ threats of litigation; and the firm’s purchase of my requests from the ethics commission.
The Matrix Man story ran the first Sunday in December (2001). I was told Perkins liked it, but found this difficult to believe. I was in any event surprised to receive a short e-mail several weeks later from Sensei.
“Eddie, Merry Christmas!”
And me back at him: “Merry Christmas to you, too! And Happy New Year.”
What surprised me most is that I meant it.
Post-script: One thing that the story and the above chapter lacked was a physical description of Perkins. At the time, I'd offered to come to Montgomery to interview him but was rebuffed. I did walk through the Matrix office complex in the hopes of lucking into an interview. He wasn’t there, but it allowed me to briefly describe the surroundings.
Years later, at the Siegelman trial, I spotted a man in the courthouse, off to himself, apart from the milling crowds of reporters, lawyers and regulars who gathered during breaks. He was of medium height and build, wearing a fedora. There was something distinctive about him, a coiled, watchful, cynical intelligence, and the barest hint of a grin.
Later I described the man to one of the Montgomery reporters, and was told it was probably Perkins.
There are two interviews with Perkins on YouTube. both on the same day (I believe, in May 2010), when he was summoned as a witness before the federal grand jury in Montgomery that later issued indictments against Milton McGregor and many others. Part I occurs after his testimony, and Part II, before. Those asking the questions are Phil Rawls of the Associated Press and Eileen Jones of WSFA in Montgomery.
Joe Perkins bingo grand jury interview Part 1
Joe Perkins bingo grand jury interview Part 2