Newly released documents appear to indicate Entergy New Orleans LLC paid a public relations contractor to recruit supporters and speakers for a controversial proposed gas plant, but do not show the utility knew those supporters would be paid.
The documents, released June 13 in response to public records requests from several local media outlets, show the Entergy Corp. subsidiary paid public relations contractor The Hawthorn Group to recruit supporters and speakers for its proposed 126-MW New Orleans Power Station. However, there is no indication in emails between Entergy New Orleans, or ENO, and The Hawthorn Group that the supporters themselves would be paid, according to a June 13 report from The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune.
The Times-Picayune in a June 14 article reported that the documents appear to show that ENO was "directly involved" in at least approving the talking points supporters would use during City Council's hearings into the planned gas plant. In addition, the documents include emails between The Hawthorn Group and subcontractor Crowds on Demand on whether to be "truthful" about the use of paid actors to support the $210 million project.
New Orleans TV station Fox 8 reported that The Hawthorn Group at one point advised ENO not to hire supporters for the project, but the company decided to move forward with the plan. In addition, the TV station said documents show ENO was made aware that a "local grassroots organization" and not Hawthorn would be used to "recruit and manage" supporters.
The email exchanges indicate ENO signed off on a $5,000 fee for Hawthorn, plus recruiting expenses for 30 supporters with hand-made signs and 10 speakers to appear at a February committee meeting on the project. The cost for the supporters with signs is listed as $10,700 with the speakers' cost listed as $6,700. ENO also paid more than $32,000 to The Hawthorn Group for services around the time of an October 2017 public hearing into the gas plant, emails show.
ENO said in a May 10 report following an internal investigation of the allegations that it had no knowledge of the compensation paid to people to attend and speak at New Orleans City Council hearings in favor of its application to build the gas-fired power plant.
The company added that it just discovered that The Hawthorn Group, retained to mobilize supporters of the project, subsequently hired Crowds on Demand, which in turn hired local actors to wear T-shirts and give speeches advocating for the plant's approval by council.
Crowds on Demand is believed to have deployed actors to two key council meetings on ENO's proposal: a public hearing in October 2017 and the committee session in February. Council members at the committee meeting voted 4-1 to send the application to the full body, which in March approved the petition in a 6-1 decision.
Two months later, the City Council said it is launching an investigation into revelations that a subcontractor for ENO paid actors to pose as supporters of the company's gas plant proposal.
In written responses to the council's probe, ENO stands by its assertion that it had no prior knowledge about the payments to supporters, which were first exposed in a May 4 report by The Lens, a nonprofit news organization.
"There is no allegation or reason to believe that anyone other than The Hawthorn Group and its unauthorized subcontractor, Crowds on Demand, paid individuals to appear and/or speak at any public meeting organized by the New Orleans City Council in connection with the [New Orleans Power Station] project," ENO wrote. "Without ENO's knowledge or concurrence, and in violation of its contract terms, The Hawthorn Group subcontracted at least a portion of its work to Crowds on Demand, which paid individuals to appear at public meetings organized by the New Orleans City Council on October 16, 2017, and February 21, 2018. ENO has not been able to confirm the identities of the individuals who were paid by Crowds on Demand."
The utility added that it appears "at least some of the 45 speakers" that backed the project at the October 2017 meeting and some of the speakers at the Feb. 21 meeting were recruited by The Hawthorn Group and/or Crowds on Demand.
"We agree public discourse about important projects such as the New Orleans Power Station must be rooted in integrity and transparency, and we will cooperate with the New Orleans City Council in its investigation," Entergy spokeswoman Emily Parenteau said June 15 in an email response to S&P Global Market Intelligence. "A careful reading of documents substantiates our position, and we stand by our earlier statement that Entergy was unaware and did not authorize compensation of individuals to appear or speak at public meetings."