no.entergycouncil.110118.17 (copy)

City Council President Jason Williams and Vice President Helena Moreno listen during a council meeting about an investigative report centered on Entergy's astroturfing controversy Oct. 31.

It's an eternal axiom: The cover-up is always worse than the underlying crime.

The "crime," in this case, was Entergy New Orleans (ENO) authorizing the use of paid actors to pack the New Orleans City Council chamber during public hearings on a proposed natural gas-fired power plant in New Orleans East. The scheme was supposed to show significant public support for the proposed plant. When it was exposed by The Lens, Entergy denied knowing that its consultants had done precisely what ENO executives had explicitly approved.

An investigative report commissioned by the council found text messages from ENO brass showing then-CEO Charles Rice approved the plan and even encouraged its expansion — though Entergy claims it didn't know the actors would be paid. Investigators concluded the company knew or should have known about the plan to "astroturf" council hearings with paid actors reciting talking points. The drip-drip-drip of revelations about what Entergy knew, and when, resulted in a special Oct. 31 council hearing, at which the current council was confronted by angry constituents.

At the special meeting, the council fined ENO $5 million, approximately 10 percent of its profits from last year, which the council insisted could not be passed on to ratepayers. Moreover, the two members of the previous council who had voted for the plant — President Jason Williams and District D Councilman Jared Brossett — left the door open to reconsidering that vote. "I believed the vote was necessary based on evidence from our experts, plain and simple," Brossett said. "After the meeting today and many months of discussion and debate, I too am open to revoting on this matter."

Council Utilities Committee Chair Helena Moreno, who was not on the council when the plant was approved, said, "The people of New Orleans have been mistreated and betrayed; they have been lied to and marginalized" — but she stopped short of calling for another vote. The council also approved a second resolution calling for a "prudence" investigation into Entergy's frequent outages. Just one day earlier, 13,000 businesses and residents across the city lost power on a sunny day. Prudence hearings are a major source of leverage for utility regulators, and the council is right to use this "big stick" to bring ENO to heel.

ENO executives have no one to blame but themselves for the utility's current troubles. Paying actors to show up at a public hearing was a particularly dumb move, considering council approval of the plant was a foregone conclusion. Now that ENO has been caught not only astroturfing but also lying about it, the blunder is also going to be costly. That's as it should be.

As for the plant, Brossett accurately noted that the council's own experts recommended building a generating station about half the size of what ENO originally proposed. When finished, it will supplement needed upgrades to ENO's dilapidated distribution system, the deterioration of which has caused many outages.

Entergy has 30 days to contest the $5 million fine. Given its ham-fisted moves in recent months, the company would do well to just pay up, lest continued public outrage cause the council to go even further.