Entergy has acknowledged that a public-relations firm working on its behalf was responsible for paying people to attend and speak at two public meetings in support of a new power plant in New Orleans.
The company said it hired the PR firm to bring supporters to the meetings, but it didn’t know those people had been paid.
The announcement came a week after The Lens revealed that actors had been paid $60 to attend meetings and $200 to speak on behalf of the natural gas plant. After the story attracted national attention, the company said it would investigate the matter.
Earlier this week, New Orleans City Council President Jason Williams said the council would look into the allegations as well.
“There is a consensus that we have an obligation to conduct an aggressive, short-timeline, thorough investigation of everything that took place with regards to these paid actors — what we now know as astroturfing,” Williams said.
Entergy released the results of its investigation Thursday. It found that The Hawthorn Group, a public relations firm it hired, was behind the astroturfing.
Hawthorn hired a California-based company called Crowds on Demand, which hired the actors to appear at public hearings in October and February, according to Entergy’s report.
Hawthorn was contracted to “assist in developing grassroots support for the proposed plant,” Entergy said in its report.
One of those contracts specified that Hawthorn would recruit 75 supporters, including 10 speakers, to appear at a public hearing of the city council’s utility committee in October. For the February meeting, Hawthorn was to recruit 30 supporters, including 10 speakers.
Entergy said in its report that it didn’t know about the subcontract with Crowds on Demand. Its first contract with Hawthorn specified that only Hawthorn, or subcontractors approved by Entergy, would perform the work.
In a statement issued Friday morning, Hawthorn denied it was behind the astroturfing. “Paying participants was not requested or authorized by our client or by Hawthorn. Clearly, there was a misunderstanding, which we deeply regret,” the company said in a statement provided by President and Chief Operating Officer Suzanne Hammelman. She would not answer questions about what happened.
But this is not the first time The Hawthorn Group has been involved in an astroturfing controversy. In 2009, the company was hired by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity to urge Congress to oppose climate-change legislation. According to news reports, Hawthorn’s subcontractor sent letters falsely attributed to groups representing African-Americans, Latinos and others.
In New Orleans, a reporter for The Lens saw about 50 people walk together into City Hall for the public hearing in October. He asked about 10 of them why they had come to support the power plant. They all gave the same answer: “Talk to Gary.”
That was Garrett Wilkerson, one of the organizers of the astroturfing campaign. “Tell nobody you’re being paid,” he instructed one of the recruits in a Facebook message.
The Lens reviewed Facebook messages that asked recruits to sign a non-disclosure agreement and told them how much they’d be paid, what to say and where to meet before and after the meeting.
We interviewed three actors, including one who agreed to be identified, who appeared at the October meeting. One of them said he recognized 10 to 15 people from the local film industry.
In a statement, Crowds on Demand CEO Adam Swart said the company pays people to ensure they show up at public meetings and stay on message, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t genuine supporters.
He didn’t respond directly to the Hawthorn Group’s statement.
Whatever the issue, “we always seek to provide genuine supporters of our clients’ points of view,” Swart wrote. “It is, in fact, a question we ask of every speaker or attendee at a public meeting.”
But Keith Keough, who was paid to attend an October meeting on the Entergy plant, told The Lens that he initially thought he was being hired to shoot a commercial.
I’m not political,” he said. “I needed the money for a hotel room at that point.”
He said the group was paid “to sit through the meeting and clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power.”
The head of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, one of the opponents of the power plant, said the group “is glad to see Entergy finally admit their subcontractors paid actors who subverted the process and forced community out of public meetings.
“We are calling on the new City Council to reverse the decision that was made on March 8,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, “and give the people of New Orleans a transparent process, alongside an independent investigation of Entergy’s practices, including all direct and indirect lobbying of Council.”
Entergy said it first heard allegations that people had been paid from an email distributed by opponents of the plant.
On March 7 — the same day WWL-TV interviewed another person who said he was paid to attend a meeting — a “blog writer” asked if the company had paid actors to speak out at the meetings, according to Entergy’s investigation.
Entergy asked someone from Hawthorn, and the PR firm denied it.
“Apparently their evidence is one person who is dilusional [sic] or lying,” an employee with Hawthorn responded. The PR firm also advised Entergy to deny the allegations.
The City Council approved the power plant on March 8.
On April 19, a coalition opposed to the power plant filed suit against the company, claiming that Entergy violated the state Open Meetings Law by packing the meetings with supporters and preventing other members of the public from attending.
The suit also alleged that Entergy paid actors to attend the meetings.
The company opened the investigation after the suit was filed, according to its report. The Lens started looking into the matter then as well.
Entergy has cut ties with The Hawthorn Group, according to the report. And it’s changing its contracting policies to prohibit vendors from hiring paid supporters.
The company said Hawthorn has agreed to refund its fees, and Entergy will donate the money to charity.
Williams calls for council investigation
Williams said he wants the council, most of whom just took office Monday, to investigate the astroturfing in the next month. He said he’s spoken with most of the council, and they support an investigation.
“We need to know who knew what and when, and whether or not ratepayer money was used in any way to fund these actors,” Williams said.
“I want to know the names of every person who was involved in organizing the receipt of funds and distribution of funds,” he said. “And I want to know each and every actor’s name that was paid. I want to know what they were told. I want to know everything about this process.”
Williams also wants to examine what can be done to prevent similar astroturfing campaigns.
“This wasn’t just a perversion of the vote on this plant, it’s a perversion of our entire deliberative process,” he said. “If it happened once, it can happen again.”
Williams suggested that paying people to speak on behalf of the power plant may have violated a city law that bans making “false or misleading representations of fact” in a utility application or proceeding.
“I think there are laws on the books that make this activity of astroturfing, if not illegal under our rules, at least contemptuous,” he said.
He’s eyeing two avenues for the council probe: a public inquiry and an independent, third-party investigation.
The council conducted a similar public inquiry in August, when councilmembers grilled officials with the Sewerage and Water Board about pumping problems that contributed to flooding during severe thunderstorms.
Can the council prevent astroturfing?
Williams said it may be be necessary to create new rules or city ordinances to restore public trust and ban deceptive practices like paying people to show up at meetings.
People must fill out cards with their names and other information in order to speak at city council meetings. Williams wants them to disclose whether they received compensation in exchange for commenting on issues before the council, though that wouldn’t prevent them from speaking.
But it can be tricky to regulate grassroots lobbying.
“I’m suspicious of rules that limit the ways people can make their voices heard and skeptical of regulations that set up red tape,” said Paul Avelar of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm.
“You talk about these things at a 30,000-foot view and they seem reasonable, and then you start diving into the details and you realize all the hoops you’ll make people jump through,” Avelar said.
Barriers to grassroots lobbying can hit regular people the hardest, Avelar said, while moneyed interests can hire lawyers and advisers to guide them through the process.
It’s not uncommon for organizations to transport and feed supporters when they attend a council meeting. Williams said he plans to differentiate between those arrangements and those in which someone is paid to deliver a prewritten speech, which is what happened at the power plant meetings.
Councilman Jay Banks expressed reservations about potential rules. “I don’t know how you regulate it,” he said. “Where do you draw the line? Who can speak?”
Will the council revisit its decision on the plant?
There doesn’t appear to be agreement on the council about reconsidering Entergy’s application for the $210 million gas-fired plant.
Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer told The Lens she’s open to it. Councilwoman Helena Moreno told The Advocate “different options are being explored.”
But Banks said he isn’t sure that the paid speakers were “the linchpin that the whole approval hinged on.”
None of them were on the council when it approved the plant.
Williams was, and he voted in favor of it. He said he stands by that decision, which was based on hundreds of pages of testimony.
It remains unclear what process the council would use to revisit that decision.
Meanwhile, Entergy is forging ahead with the new plant. Thursday, construction equipment was working at the site.
Lens reporter Marta Jewson contributed to this story.
This story was updated after publication to include additional details of Entergy’s investigation and the council’s proposed investigation into the astroturfing campaign, and to include responses from Hawthorn and Crowds on Demand. (May 10 and 11, 2018)