The secret to plausible deniability is right there in the beginning of the short phrase. Anyone can deny anything. The key is to make the denial plausible.
Entergy New Orleans officials have hung their weak explanation for the company’s use of paid actors to impersonate real protesters against a new power plant on the claim that they didn’t know.
A damning new report commissioned by the New Orleans City Council reinforces something that was plain from the get-go, that this explanation simply isn’t plausible. Company officials’ claims of ignorance are essentially meaningless, because if they weren’t aware that their consultants had hired a subcontractor named “Crowds on Demand” to hire fake protesters, it was because they deliberately looked the other way.
ENO leaders “knew or should have known,” said the report spearheaded by former federal prosecutor Matt Coman — best known for having led the successful criminal case against former Mayor Ray Nagin — and retired Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson.
Indeed, the report outlines a drive to win by any means necessary.
For example, several text exchanges specifically linked the number of protesters present at key meetings to the cost to Entergy. Among the effects of the company’s drive to pack the council chamber was that others literally couldn’t get into the room.
In one exchange quoted in the report, since-demoted company CEO Charles Rice likened the council vote to “war” and wrote that ENO needed “all the foot shoulder (soldiers) we can muster.”
Two weeks before an October 2017, utility committee meeting, Rice asked Entergy’s communications manager Yolanda Pollard how many people The Hawthorn Group, Entergy’s lead consultant, could get to the meeting. Pollard replied that “50 people and 10 speakers” were ready.
“If Hawthorn can get more people I will pay,” Rice responded.
Pollard wrote later that Hawthorn would send instead send 75 protesters and 10 public speakers, all wearing supportive T-shirts, and that the corresponding price tag would go up $6,000.
“Deal,” Rice responded.
But another takeaway from the report is that paying protesters was just one of many deceptive activities designed to promote the plant.
In the report and in testimony before the council’s Utility Committee Wednesday, investigators described personal-sounding, pre-written testimony in support of the plant from, say, a “single mother,” with the identity of the speaker to be filled in later.
They described suspiciously professional-sounding language coming from supposedly grassroots activists, such as am oft-repeated warning about “cascading outages” if the plant is not built. They noted that several protesters came from outside Orleans Parish, and would thus have no personal stake in the decision.
They also wrote that The Hawthorne Group’s head told Crowds on Demand that the identity of the firm’s client — Entergy — could not be disclosed.
And they said that Entergy resisted sharing both text messages, which investigators eventually saw, and other documents that they did not.
So maybe Entergy didn’t know, specifically, that actors were showing up at Dave & Busters to get paid to impersonate citizen activists. They certainly understood the overall strategy — and so, quite clearly, did their hired guns.
A lengthy report — the culmination of a months-long investigation into the use of paid actors to speak in support of Entergy New Orleans’ plan…
The effort is likely going to cost the company big time. This week, the council started the process of imposing a $5 million penalty, the largest ever levied by the city.
It probably won’t cost it the plant itself, though. The two holdovers from the council that initially approved the plant, Council President Jason Williams and Councilman Jared Brossett, said they’d be open to a revote. But both said they’d been swayed initially not by the show of force but by expert opinion.
Whether that outcome controls damage to the council’s reputation remains to be seen.
As for Entergy, the verdict is already in.