Government & Politics
 

New Orleans City Council opens investigation into campaign to pay actors to support power plant

The New Orleans City Council on Thursday voted to open a formal investigation into a campaign to pay actors to show up at meetings to support Entergy’s new power plant.

The council also voted to seek bids for an investigator to lead the probe.

Council President Jason Williams said investigators will “dig as deeply as humanly possible” to uncover every aspect of the astroturfing campaign and who knew about it.

“It perverted the process,” he said. “It flies in the face of public comment and the true purpose of public comment.”

The council laid the groundwork for the investigation last week when it sent Entergy a letter demanding it preserve all evidence related to the scandal. With the motion on Thursday, which passed by a unanimous vote, the council demanded that the company turn over those records.

Councilwoman Helena Moreno stressed that the investigative process will be transparent.

“I, too, share in your outrage. I, too, think it was absolutely unacceptable for paid actors to be part of this process,” she said, adding that all evidence reviewed in the investigation will be attached to the final report and released to the public.

“You deserve to know the answers, just as we do,” she said. “We are the regulators of this entity. You are the ratepayers.”

This month, The Lens reported that dozens of people, including professional actors, appeared to have been hired to show up at meetings and speak on behalf of the power plant. That reporting was based on interviews with people who said they were paid and Facebook messages that detailed the recruiting effort.

Participants were paid $60 to come to a meeting. Actors with speaking roles were paid $200 to deliver a speech written for them. “Tell nobody you’re being paid,” instructed an organizer.

The week after The Lens published its story, Entergy acknowledged the astroturfing campaign, but said it didn’t know about it.

The council approved the gas plant on March 8 in a 6-1 vote. A coalition of environmental groups have since filed lawsuits against the city demanding that the vote be nullified and reheard, in part because of the use of paid actors.

Members of those groups appeared at Thursday’s meeting, asking the council to withdraw the March vote.

“This particular issue around the Entergy paid actor scandal is something we really need you to be vested in,” said Monique Harden, assistant director of law and policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “Our democracy was attacked.”

Entergy hired the Virginia-based Hawthorn Group to coordinate a grassroots campaign in support of the $210 million project, which faced opposition from environmentalists and neighborhood groups in eastern New Orleans.

Entergy acknowledged that its contracts with Hawthorn called for specific numbers of supporters: 75 people, including 10 speakers, at an October meeting and 30 people, including 10 speakers, at one in February.

But the company said it didn’t know Hawthorn had subcontracted with the California-based company Crowds on Demand, which recruited and hired the actors.

Suzanne Hammelman, Hawthorn’s president and chief operating officer, told The Lens that neither Entergy nor her company requested or authorized paid supporters, calling it a misunderstanding.

Adam Swart, the CEO of Crowds on Demand, said his company does pay people to ensure they show up at public meetings and stay on message — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t genuine supporters.

The motion approved by the council Thursday calls for Entergy to provide the council with a list of people and companies that participated in the campaign and the company’s investigation into it, as well as any contracts, talking points and communications related to the meetings, the investigation or the company’s response to the investigation.

Harden asked that the investigation look into the council itself, specifically whether any councilmembers knew about the astroturfing campaign before it came out in news reports.

“I’d just like to answer that question for myself. I did not,” Williams said.

A separate motion calls for the council to start looking for an investigator Friday. A selection committee will choose someone by the end of next month.

Once hired, the investigator will have 30 days to deliver a report to the council.

Both motions say the costs of the investigation will “be borne completely and wholly by Entergy and not by the ratepayers of New Orleans.”

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About Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado covers the city of New Orleans and other local government bodies. He previously worked for Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.