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New Orleans City Council launches probe of Entergy after astroturf revelations

The New Orleans City Council is launching an investigation of Entergy New Orleans LLC in light of revelations that a subcontractor for the utility paid actors to pose as supporters of the company's gas plant proposal at regulatory meetings.

The regulatory body also plans to bring in a third-party investigator, possibly a former prosecutor or U.S. attorney, to assist the council or conduct its own probe, council members said May 18.

Members made it clear that they will not decide whether to reconsider approval of the Entergy plant until after the investigation concludes. If the company is found to be at fault to some degree, Entergy Corp. shareholders, not ratepayers, will pay the costs of the council's probe, Councilmember Jay Banks said at a press conference.

All seven members of the council wrote a letter May 15 to Entergy New Orleans Chairman, President and CEO Charles Rice informing him of the inquiry, which comes less than a week after the utility released its own report detailing internal findings.

"The Council expects nothing short of the full cooperation" of Entergy New Orleans, or ENO, council members wrote in the letter to Rice. They directed the utility to preserve all evidence related to the astroturfing scandal, including communications and contracts, along with materials tied to its internal report.

That information will "help us determine what additional actions we as a council need to take," Council Vice President Helena Moreno said at the press conference.

When asked if the plant's approval would be reconsidered, after ENO's report disclosed the existence of paid actors, Council President Jason Williams said that would be like putting the cart before the horse.

"If we're doing an earnest investigation, and we presuppose what our decision is going to be before we see the results of that investigation, then we're calling that investigation a farce," he said at the press conference.

"Investigations can exonerate, investigations can convict," Williams added. "Everything's on the table."

'Perversion of our public process'

ENO disclosed May 10 that a public affairs company it retained to mobilize supporters of the then-proposed New Orleans Power Station subsequently hired its own agency, Crowds on Demand, which paid local actors to wear shirts and give speeches advocating for the plant's approval. The council subsequently approved the project's construction in March.

In a May 18 news release, the council outlined several options to address the issue: conducting its own public review and hearing on the matter, hiring a third-party investigator and opening a regulatory docket to vet all findings.

Williams, who voted for the plant in March, said in a statement that he envisions a "hybrid approach" of public hearings and a third-party probe. He did not outline a specific timeline for the investigation, saying at the press conference that while "time is of the essence ... we can't let time trump thoroughness and completeness."

The council is also updating its public comment cards for meetings to include an indication of whether a speaker is being compensated for their testimony. Williams said the new cards will likely take effect in June.

Councilmember Jared Brossett said at the press conference that he will be filing legislation to implement lobbying disclosures for those who appear before the council and the mayoral administration. He reminded the public that the council is also investigating ENO's frequent outages and has issued a show-cause order compelling the utility to provide information on power failures.

"It was a perversion of our public process. The use of paid actors was clearly an attempt to pervert the true purpose of public comment on matters before the council," Williams said at the press conference. "We will not allow our process to be perverted with money, and the use of that money to try to buy public support or pay actors."

Moreno, speaking after Williams, said, "Entergy is dealing with a very serious integrity issue, and us being the regulators of this utility, it is beholden on us to hold them accountable."