A contractor working for Entergy New Orleans hired actors to support the utility's proposal to build a $210 million power plant in New Orleans East, Entergy acknowledged Thursday after an internal investigation.
Despite the admission, the City Council promised to conduct its own investigation.
The Hawthorn Group, a national public relations firm, hired the California-based firm Crowds on Demand to help create the image of widespread public support for the plant at City Council hearings, in violation of Entergy's contract with Hawthorn, Entergy officials said.
Hawthorn was not supposed to hire any subcontractors without notifying Entergy, the officials said.
“These kinds of activities run directly counter to the way we conduct our business,” said Entergy's general counsel, Marcus Brown. “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."
Can't see video below? Click here.
The New Orleans City Council is planning to investigate allegations that actors were paid to support a plan to build a $210 million power plan…
Entergy has ended its relationship with the Virginia-based Hawthorn and has placed it and Crowds on Demand on a "do not hire" list, officials said.
The company also has added language to its standard consulting contracts that expressly bans firms from hiring actors to feign public support — an apparently legal practice known as "astroturfing" — for Entergy initiatives in the future, Brown said in an interview.
The Hawthorn Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Council President Jason Williams and Vice President Helena Moreno issued a statement late Thursday saying that the "allegations and subsequent confirmation of astroturfing during the City Council's consideration of the proposal ... fly in the face of the dignity, courtesy and respect of traditional public discourse vital to our democratic process."
They added: "While we acknowledge Entergy's efforts to swiftly investigate the matter and produce a report of its findings, as regulators, the City Council owes a fiduciary obligation to the citizens of New Orleans that we must honor. These serious allegations during a monumental proceeding by the City Council warrant a fully independent review by the council or by a third-party investigator hired by the council to transparently vet the facts of this matter."
Asked this week whether the revelation that actors were paid could prompt a council reconsideration of the plant decision or some other penalty, Moreno said more would be decided once the probe is complete.
The council approved the plant's construction 6-1 in March, agreeing with Entergy’s arguments that the plant is needed to prevent possible cascading outages in New Orleans and to provide a local source of electricity generation.
Only two members of that council, Williams and Jared Brossett, are still in office. Both voted for the plant.
By the time of the March vote, the plant’s opponents already had begun questioning whether Entergy paid people to back the project, a claim the utility swiftly denied. The critics, including the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and other groups, filed a suit April 19 alleging the same claim in an attempt to block the project.
After the suit was filed, The Lens, a nonprofit local news website, was the first to interview at least three people who confirmed they were paid at least $60 and as much $200 apiece by representatives of Crowds on Demand to back the proposed 128-megawatt plant.
Entergy then acknowledged for the first time that it was investigating who did what to line up supporters. Officials said Thursday that they began their investigation the day the April lawsuit was filed.
Entergy said it reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including contracts, change orders and emails, to get to the bottom of who hired the California firm. It said it also interviewed its own employees who were involved in the power station initiative, as well as representatives of Crowds on Demand and the Hawthorn Group.
Those two entities admitted to working together, Brown said. "This activity was undertaken without our knowledge or approval, and I can say unequivocally that it would not have been approved had we known,” he said.
Although Entergy asked Hawthorn to supply specific numbers of supporters at various council meetings — “up to 75 grassroots supporters, 10 of whom would speak," on Oct. 17, "and up to 30 grassroots supporters, including 10 speakers,” on Feb. 21, according to the investigation — it said it believed it was paying Hawthorn only to ask people to support it publicly.
Hawthorn was one of at least two consultants Entergy asked to gin up support for the power plant. The other was longtime local political strategist Bill Rouselle, who said Monday that he did not pay people to support the idea.
A coalition of the plant's critics who have urged the council to reverse its March 8 decision called Tuesday for multiple independent investigations. The Rev. Gregory Manning, a vocal Entergy opponent, also said he was "skeptical" of Entergy's claim that it was unaware of Hawthorn's actions.
In any case, he said, the utility should be held responsible for the debacle. "If they are over that subsidiary company, then they ultimately paid those actors," he said.
Last October, about 50 people in bright orange shirts filed into City Hall for a public hearing on Entergy’s request to build a $210 million p…