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Subcontractor paid pro-plant actors, Entergy says

SNL Image

A rendering of the New Orleans Power Station, which was the subject of a now-confirmed "astroturf" campaign.
Source: Entergy New Orleans

An Entergy New Orleans LLC subcontractor acted without authorization to pay actors to pose as supporters of the utility's gas plant proposal at regulatory meetings, an internal investigation by the company found. Entergy New Orleans, or ENO, said in a May 10 report that it had no knowledge of the compensation of individuals to attend and speak at New Orleans City Council hearings in favor of the utility's application to build a $210 million gas-fired power plant.

The company discovered that Hawthorn Group, the public affairs firm it had retained to mobilize supporters of the project, subsequently hired its own agency, Crowds on Demand, which in turn hired local actors to wear t-shirts and give speeches advocating for the plant's approval by the council.

Crowds on Demand deployed actors to two key council meetings on ENO's proposal: a public hearing in October 2017, and a committee session in February 2018. Council members at the latter gathering voted 4-1 to send the utility's application to the full body, which in March greenlighted the petition in a 6-1 decision.

The Hawthorn Group has offices in Virginia and Alabama, and Crowds on Demand is headquartered in Beverly Hills, Calif.

"The unauthorized subcontract was a violation of our primary contract with Hawthorn, the payments made by Crowds on Demand run directly counter to Entergy's corporate values and current business practices, and they would have been flatly prohibited by Entergy if we had any prior notice about the planned payments," ENO wrote in its investigation report.

Marcus Brown, general counsel for ENO parent Entergy Corp., said in a statement that "we apologize to the Council, the community, and to the many supporters of the New Orleans Power Station project who took their own time to attend those public hearings and express their support for this important project."

ENO has ended its contractual relationship with Hawthorn, the utility said, and the fees paid to the firm will be returned to ENO and donated to charitable organizations.

Plant reconsideration possible

The so-called "astroturf" support for the plant was first reported in a May 4 exposé by The Lens, a New Orleans-based nonprofit news organization. ENO's internal investigation also revealed that the utility is the subject of a lawsuit filed April 19 in Orleans Parish Civil District Court by several stakeholders and citizens involved in the plant application process. They allege that members of the public were barred from attending council meetings on the plant, but the utility says they were not allowed into hearing rooms because of fire safety regulations.

Some members of the city council are calling for the body to probe the astroturfing incidents, which Council President Jason Williams told The New Orleans Advocate have compromised the approval process.

"The harmful impact of this nefarious practice is unfortunate, unappreciated and repulsive to true democratic deliberative process," Williams said to the newspaper. He voted in favor of ENO's proposal both in committee and in the full council.

Councilmember Helena Moreno, who started her first term on May 7, was asked by the Advocate if the body would reconsider its decision to greenlight the plant. "I think it's safe to say that different options are being explored," she replied. "I will just leave it at that."