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 power plant in eastern New Orleans. Their shirts read, “Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power.”
The purpose of the hearing was to gauge community support for the power plant. But for some of those in the crowd, it was just another acting gig.
At least four of the people in orange shirts were professional actors. One actor said he recognized 10 to 15 others who work in the local film industry.
They were paid $60 each time they wore the orange shirts to meetings in October and February. Some got $200 for a “speaking role,” which required them to deliver a prewritten speech, according to interviews with the actors and screenshots of Facebook messages provided to The Lens.
“They paid us to sit through the meeting and clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power,” said Keith Keough, who heard about the opportunity through a friend.
He said he thought he was going to shoot a commercial. “I’m not political,” he said. “I needed the money for a hotel room at that point.”
They were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements and were instructed not to speak to the media or tell anyone they were being paid.
But three of them agreed to talk about their experience and provided evidence that they were paid to endorse the power plant. Two spoke on the condition that they not be identified, saying they didn’t want to jeopardize other work or get in trouble for violating the non-disclosure agreement.
Another attendee, an actor and musician who played a small role on HBO’s “Treme,” told WWL-TV he was paid to wear one of the orange shirts at a meeting of the council’s utility committee.
Paying people to create the illusion of grassroots support is known as astroturfing. Although it’s misleading, it appears to be legal. The Lens couldn’t find any prohibition against such activities, and Louisiana’s lobbying laws only cover money spent directly on public officials.
But Councilwoman Stacy Head called what happened in those meetings “disturbing.” Councilwoman Susan Guidry, the only member of the Utility Committee to vote against the plant, called it “morally reprehensible,” saying, “I think it had a phenomenal impact on public opinion.”
The two men who recruited and organized the actors, Garrett Wilkerson and Daniel Taylor, appear to be from out of town. In our story about the October hearing, Wilkerson offered an apocalyptic prediction about what would happen to New Orleans if the power plant weren’t built.
It remains unclear who was behind the effort, but Guidry has a guess. “How can you not link Entergy to this?” she asked. “Who else would have paid all these people to come there and say they want a gas-fired power plant?”
But in a statement provided to The Lens, Entergy said it didn’t do it. The company said the allegations that people were paid to attend and speak at meetings “are troubling and run counter to the values of our company.
“While we reiterate that Entergy did not pay, nor did we authorize any other person or entity to pay supporters to attend or speak at Council meetings, we recognize that our interactions with our stakeholders must always be based on honesty and integrity,” the company said.
The company said it’s finalizing an investigation “to determine if anyone retained by the company has acted in any way inconsistent with these values. We will take swift and appropriate action if warranted.”
In a Facebook message, Wilkerson indicated he was working with Crowds on Demand, a Los Angeles-based company that does exactly what its name suggests. “If you need speakers to present at a council meeting, we can provide talented and well-spoken individuals to advocate for the cause,” the company says on its website.
The company didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Entergy offered different reasons to build the power plant during an application process that lasted almost two years. First, the company said the city faced a shortfall in generation capacity. When demand projections didn’t bear that out, the company shifted its rationale: The new plant was necessary to mitigate a potentially catastrophic transmission failure.
Opponents countered that the utility could address that problem by upgrading its transmission lines for a fraction of the cost of the power plant. They said the city council and its utility advisors, who recommended building the plant, didn’t consider alternative solutions that would cost less and avoid polluting eastern New Orleans.
In March, the New Orleans City Council approved the power plant by a vote of 6-1.
‘A Hollywood experience’
Word spread through the local film industry, where people are always looking for freelance work.
“Before we get started I need you to sign a non disclosure agreement, that cool?” Wilkerson asked in a Facebook message when one actor responded.
He explained that he needed people to sit through a city council meeting and endorse Entergy’s bid for a new power plant.
“The council already supports it, this is mostly just to show them that the citizens don’t have a problem with it,” he wrote. “Free pizza and a round of drinks after it’s over, at which point pay will be dispersed in cash … I’m prepared to offer you a non speaking role for $60 plus bonus potential.”
Wilkerson explained that he would get a “recruitment bonus” for everyone he brought.
A higher bar was set for speaking roles. “To audition for a speaking role, video yourself giving a 1-3 minute persuasive speech on the topic of your choice,” Wilkerson wrote to one of his recruits.
“I’m an excellent speaker,” one of the actors told The Lens. “I was their best choice. Of course I had a speaking role, are you kidding?”
Wilkerson sent a list of more than 30 possible talking points about the power plant to people who passed the test and told them to choose their favorites. They included comparisons of New Orleans to the Third World, praise for Entergy’s commitment to renewable energy, fears of hurricanes and tornadoes, and connections between the power plant and the city’s crime rate.
“Entergy has been more than fair opening this process for public input,” read one of the talking points. “I see no reason to belabor this any further. Our only option to address the power disruptions is proceed with the new plant. There is no Plan B!”
Wilkerson aggregated the chosen talking points into a unified statement. “I’ll be sending you a full speech in a few hours,” he told one of the recruits.
“It was like a Hollywood experience,” said Andrew Wiseman in a video posted by the Alliance for Affordable Energy, which opposed the plant. “But I didn’t know what I was in for, really.”
Supporters filled the room
Wilkerson told people to meet at a nearby hotel an hour and a half before the October meeting.
As dozens of people in fluorescent shirts walked through the metal detectors at City Hall that day, The Lens asked them why they had come to support the power plant. Each gave the same answer: “Talk to Gary,” referring to Garrett Wilkerson.
“I think we’ve got them outnumbered,” chuckled Charles Rice Jr., president and CEO of Entergy New Orleans, before the hearing started.
One of the hired actors told The Lens that they were instructed to arrive early. “They said, you guys have to be there first thing because as soon as they open the door, we want you guys in there so if there are any protesters we got that whole room filled.”
Soon after the meeting began, the city council chamber was full. Residents who arrived late were barred from entering. At one point, Guidry asked people who had already spoken to make room for others waiting to get in.
One of the people locked out was Danil Faust, who at the time was running for a seat in the state House of Representatives. Eventually, he got in. “I walk in and the first thing I see is a really close friend of mine in an orange shirt in the third row,” he said. “And he sees me and just puts a finger to his lips.”
That friend was Keough. After the meeting, Faust convinced Keough, who was about to move to North Carolina, to tell him what was going on.
In later meetings, Faust openly accused Entergy of paying people to be there. Wilkerson took notice and told his people to avoid Faust, according to Facebook messages and two of the actors.
They were directed to the nearby Dave & Busters to get paid. “It was very shady, very secretive, especially when we got paid,” said one of the actors. “They literally paid us under the table.”
The organizers didn’t follow through on the promise of free pizza and drinks, so everyone got an extra $20, according to the actors.
Residents filled out 99 speaker cards at the October meeting: 47 in support of the plant, 32 opposed, and 20 that didn’t say one way or another.
Dozens of people wore the orange shirts, but some may not have been paid to do so. For example, Rice was surrounded by people in orange shirts whom he seemed to know.
When the city council convened on March 8 for the final vote on the power plant, Wilkerson was back in Texas, according to screenshots of Facebook messages. The city council chamber was dominated by opponents; the sea of orange shirts was nowhere to be found.
“I was stuck by how few people came to speak in favor of the power plant at the last meeting when no one was being paid,” Guidry said.
Lawyers representing a coalition of power-plant opponents plan to ask the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office and the New Orleans City Council to investigate who paid the actors and whether any laws were broken.
The same coalition — the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, VAYLA New Orleans, Justice and Beyond, 350 New Orleans, and the Sierra Club — brought a separate lawsuit against the city council in April. Among other things, it alleged that the council broke the state Open Meetings Law by keeping people out of two meetings concerning the proposed power plant.
In an affidavit, Michael Brown, an attorney for the Sierra Club, identified three actors who spoke at the meeting. One told The Lens he’d been paid; one denied it.
“The fact that people were locked out of meetings is bad enough,” said attorney William Quigley, who helped write the complaints. “But if you’re locked out because there are people who are being paid to sit in there and fill it up so that you can’t get in, that’s even worse.”
The astroturfing industry
It’s not uncommon for organizations to arrange grassroots support or opposition at government meetings. Groups sometimes drive people to meetings, pass out statements, and coach them on talking points.
It is unusual, however, for people to be paid to weigh in on an issue they may have no knowledge or opinion about.
However, astroturfing may be more common than you think. Crowds on Demand is one of the only companies that advertises this kind of work. But UCLA professor Edward Walker, who wrote a book about the phenomenon called “Grassroots for Hire,” said many other crowd services operate under the radar.
“There are hundreds of such firms across the country,” he told CNN in January. “By my estimate, around 40 percent of the Fortune 500 appears on the client list of at least one such firm.”
Guidry said she talked to Council President Jason Williams, who chairs the Utility Committee, about the paid speakers. She said he agreed that the city council should take some kind of action. But she doesn’t know exactly how this sort of organizing could be regulated without violating the First Amendment.
Williams’ office did not respond to requests for comment.
“Is this an actual industry?” Faust asked. “The fact that they’ve been doing this and hiding it so well makes me question how many other projects groups have done this on.”
At the October meeting, Taylor and and Wilkerson said they were part of a new organization called the Council for Responsible Governance. The Lens could not find any evidence of the existence of this group.
The non-disclosure agreements named “DG Consultants and associated entities.” There is no registered business under that name in Texas, where Wilkerson and Taylor appear to live, or in Louisiana.
On a phone call last week, Taylor said he was a campaign director. “I’m brought in to help run grassroots organizations and campaigns.” He would not say who hired him and has not responded to phone calls since. Wilkerson did not respond to requests for comment.
“These guys, Gary and Daniel, they travel,” one of the actors said. “They do this for all sorts of organizations. They’ve got a pretty sweet gig.”
In a Facebook message after the February meeting, Wilkerson said he hoped to get more work locally: “I like New Orleans more than anywhere else we’ve been sent.”
This story was updated after publication to include a response from Entergy and remove a reference to a statement provided earlier to WWL-TV. (May 6, 2018)