Government & Politics
 

Documents detail price, logistics behind the campaign to pay actors to support New Orleans power plant

Michael Stein / The Lens

In October, a reporter for The Lens observed a group of about 50 people walk into a public hearing wearing orange shirts supporting a new power plant in New Orleans. Some of them were actors, according to interviews and messages reviewed by The Lens. Entergy says it hired a PR firm to bring supporters, but it didn’t know those people were paid.

Entergy New Orleans was billed about $55,000 to bring people — including actors — to public meetings to show support for a new power plant, according to documents turned over to the city council as part of its investigation into the astroturfing campaign.

But that was a lot less than the half-million dollars proposed by a public-relations firm to create a group to advocate for the plant, complete with local leaders drawn from the business and political establishment. Entergy never moved forward with that plan.

Those are some of the details buried in hundreds of pages of documents turned over by Entergy to the city council Friday and provided Wednesday to The Lens.

The council opened the investigation a few weeks after The Lens revealed that dozens of people, including actors, were paid to attend public meetings and deliver pre-written speeches in favor of the power plant in eastern New Orleans.

Participants got $60 to attend each meeting, wearing bright orange shirts that said, “Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power.” Those with “speaking roles” were paid $200.

Entergy has acknowledged paying the Virginia-based Hawthorn Group to bring supporters to the meetings, but the power company said it didn’t know those people would be paid.

Hawthorn, in turn, hired Crowds on Demand, a Los Angeles-based company that pays people to show up at events such as protests and government meetings.

“It was very shady, very secretive, especially when we got paid,” one of the actors told The Lens. “They literally paid us under the table.”

Some of the documents provided to the council raise questions about what Entergy knew about the arrangement.

“What’s your take on union leaders also wearing orange t-shirts, similar to the attendees you’re securing?” Entergy’s communications manager asked the president of Hawthorn as they prepared for a city council hearing in October.

“I actually think it would be good if we can get others to wear shirts,” responded Hawthorn’s president. “That will lessen the questions about ‘who are these people?’”

The documents provide details into what appears to have been a multi-pronged effort to gin up community support and track opposition to the plant:

The council approved the gas-powered plant on March 8 in a 6-1 vote. A coalition of environmental groups has since filed lawsuits against the city demanding that the council reconsider the matter, in part because people were paid to support the plant.

The council plans to hire an independent firm to investigate what happened. And the council has introduced new cards requiring anyone who speaks at a meeting to disclose whether they had received any compensation, including cash, meals or transportation.

Original proposal would’ve cost a half-million dollars

Entergy and Hawthorn were already shaping an advocacy campaign by mid-August. By the end of the month, Hawthorn presented a proposal for a sprawling advocacy campaign that would cost Entergy between $417,000 and $663,000 over six months.

“The big idea is to build a sustainable independent organization that will start by promoting the need to build the New Orleans Power Station,” Suzanne Hammelman, Hawthorn’s president, wrote in a memo to Yolanda Pollard, communications manager for Entergy. “If built for the long-term, this organization can advocate for any number of projects within its mission that are also supported by Entergy New Orleans.”

Hammelman proposed a “GrassTops” organization, made up of “respected New Orleans civic, labor, religious, minority and community leaders” that would advocate for the new power plant, solicit support from associates, write columns to local media, and contact public officials.

Among the names floated in her proposal for inclusion in GrassTops: Gary LaGrange, president of the Port Authority Association; Noah Lewis of 100 Black Men of Metro New Orleans; Andy Kopplin, who was second-in-command for the Landrieu administration and now heads the Greater New Orleans Foundation; state Sen. J.P. Morrell; AFL-CIO president Tiger Hammond; and real estate developer Joe Jaeger.

Hammelman said the company hadn’t reached out to those people, so she didn’t know if they would be interested.

Ultimately, Entergy opted against that massive effort. Hammelman came back in September with a relatively modest proposal to bring supporters to an upcoming public hearing regarding the power plant.

But she expressed reservations.

“I would caution you that we generally do not recommend this type of stand-alone effort and certainly would not suggest doing it more than once,” she wrote. “Questions will be asked – who are these people and WHY did they turn out? Who got them here? So for future efforts, you most certainly should have an organization behind it.”

But Entergy was undeterred. “I’ve reviewed this approach with Charles,” Pollard wrote. “We’d like to move forward with the plan.”

Hawthorn hired to bring supporters to meetings

This is one of the messages a recruiter posted to his Facebook page advertising the gig.

Even if Entergy officials didn’t know people would get cash to attend the meetings, the company was willing to pay a sizable sum to get them there.

The documents include Hawthorn’s price sheet for its services at one meeting:

  • 15 supporters at hearings with hand-made signs: $6,125
  • 20 supporters at hearings with hand-made signs: $7,725
  • 30 supporters at hearing with hand-made signs: $10,700
  • 5 speakers: $4,600
  • 10 speakers: $6,700

On top of that, Hawthorn wanted a $7,500 service fee.

Entergy decided to hire Hawthorn to help with the meeting in October and another in February. Hawthorn was to bring 75 supporters, plus 10 speakers, to the October meeting and 30 supporters, plus 10 speakers, to the one in February.

Hammelman said the company would provide “real supporters whom we have identified, recruited and educated about the benefits of the power station and why it is the most desirable solution at this time and for future energy needs.”

A contract for the October meeting stipulated that “the speakers will be there at least two hours in advance to ensure they get in the room.”

Opponents of the plant have complained that they were shut out of meetings and denied the ability to speak.

Minutes before the October meeting began, the council chamber was a sea of orange. Crowds on Demand arranged the T-shirts, paying $4,500 for 250 of them.

“I think we’ve got them outnumbered,” Rice chuckled to one of his colleagues.

Just before the meeting, a reporter for The Lens observed about 50 people wearing the orange shirts walk together into City Hall. He asked about 10 of them why they had come to support the power plant. They all gave the same answer: “Talk to Gary.”

Michael Stein / The Lens

Behind a sea of orange shirts at a public hearing in October stood two men who had recruited people to support and speak on behalf of the power plant: Garrett Wilkerson, left, and Daniel Taylor, right. Documents turned over by Entergy to the city council confirm that the two men worked for a company called Crowds on Demand, which provides people to show up at protests, government meetings and other events.

They were referring to Garrett Wilkerson, one of the organizers of the astroturfing campaign. “Tell nobody you’re being paid,” he had instructed one of the recruits in a Facebook message.

Other Facebook messages reviewed by The Lens 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.

Documents provided to the council confirm that Wilkerson and another organizer, Daniel Taylor, worked for Crowds on Demand.

The Lens 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.

Keith Keough, one of the men who spoke to The Lens, said the group was paid to clap anytime someone denigrated renewable energy such as wind and hydropower.

Entergy paid Hawthorn $32,142.11 for this meeting.

Hawthorn was back at work in February. The evening before that meeting, Gary Huntley, Entergy’s head of regulatory and governmental affairs, emailed Rice and other Entergy employees. “I received confirmation that the room will open at 8:30 am. Let’s get as many of our folks there ahead of the bus from NO East,” he wrote.

That message was forwarded to Hammelman, who had arranged supporters to arrive by 8 a.m.

Hawthorn billed Entergy $22,478.40 for the February meeting. But the contract wasn’t amended to include the second meeting until late April — about a week before the astroturfing campaign became public — and that invoice was never paid.

Hawthorn refunded its fee to Entergy, and the power company has said it would donate it to charity.

Entergy, Hawthorn say they didn’t know attendees got cash

Hawthorn has a history of astroturf lobbying — using money to create the illusion of grassroots support. In 2009, a contractor for Hawthorn sent letters purporting to be from minority and senior groups opposing clean energy legislation, according to several publications including The New York Times and Politico.

At an October public hearing, Charles Rice Jr., CEO of Entergy New Orleans, sat next to people wearing orange shirts supporting the power plant. Some of the people who wore shirts to the meeting and spoke in support the plant were paid to do so.

Despite that, Hammelman has said she didn’t know that the company she hired, Crowds on Demand, would pay people to support the plant. She characterized what happened as a “misunderstanding.”

Entergy, too, has said it didn’t know. However, the documents raise questions about whether it was really in the dark.

Before the October meeting, Pollard sent an email to Hammelman asking, “How do the participants you’re securing answer questions about their support and affiliation, if asked by media, etc.?”

Hammelman responded that participants had been told to avoid the media, and if they had to say something, “everyone will be able to provide a reason why they are there (they are, after all, recruited BECAUSE they already support the project for their own reasons.)”

She then went on, “We run our speakers through media practice drills several times prior to the event to make sure they know how to handle and divert.”

Pollard did not respond to a request for comment.

Found out

In March, Entergy officials heard that opponents were accusing the company of paying supporters to show up.

In an email, Pollard told Hammelman that an opponent was claiming people had been paid $60 to show up at a meeting, they had signed non-disclosure agreements, and they were paid at a Dave and Buster’s.

“Could you share with me by Wednesday some key points that our leadership could have on hand for this issue?” Pollard asked Hammelman. “The response points would be used to address questions from city council members or others only if asked.”

Hammelman’s one-word response: “Interesting.”

Later that evening, she sent a list of talking points in case the alleged payments were brought up at a Utility Committee meeting the next morning.

One of them read, “This is, perhaps, one man’s way of stirring up controversy and [creating] an illusion that we have to pay for support. That’s simply not true.”

Lens reporters Marta Jewson and Charles Maldonado contributed to this story.

Corrections: This story originally stated that Entergy paid about $55,000 for the campaign. That’s how much the company was billed, but it ended up paying about $32,000. This story also incorrectly stated that in another incident, Hawthorn had sent letters purporting to be from groups opposing clean energy legislation. A subcontractor for Hawthorn actually did that. (July 13-14, 2018)

This story was revised after publication to add additional details from the documents. (June 13, 2018)

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