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Week in Review: Documents provide new insight on Entergy’s astroturfing campaign

We have news from around the city — and our own newsroom — in this week’s roundup.

Founder Karen Gadbois is reactivating her prize-winning coverage of land use. Watch her interview reflecting on our humble beginnings and then read about our new plans below.

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

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 Entergy turned over to city council. And as soon as we got them on Wednesday afternoon, The Lens team got to work.

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.”

No public discussion or vote as Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy picks new leader

For the third time in just over a year, we covered a school board meeting where a new CEO was hired — and the charter school board appeared to violate state Open Meeting Law in the process.

The board of Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy emerged from a closed executive session last week to announce, without public discussion or a public vote, that Nicole Young Smith would be the school’s new principal.

Smith’s qualifications and prior experience were not revealed nor were those of the other four candidates for the job.

Not only did the board not vote in public, but no other board members spoke publicly for or against her selection to head the school.

Memo from Florida to Steve Scalise: Keep the rigs—and pollution—on your side of the Gulf

Christian Wagley asks U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise to keep oil rigs away from his Florida coast. The BP oil spill in 2010, he recalls, reached Florida’s beaches. It was the summer the tourists didn’t come.

“Scalise’s efforts to expand drilling puts Florida right up against the edge. That’s the same edge that the BP oil disaster brought to us when rig operators pushed the envelope by ignoring safety protocols and pushing for production above all else. They tried to have their cake and eat it too.

“While Scalise and others may favor drilling for Louisiana’s coast, we don’t want it here off Florida. In fact, we want to see the current eastern Gulf moratorium on drilling extended rather than letting it expire in 2022.”

Charting a path forward for The Lens, New Orleans’ nonprofit source of investigative journalism

Now that we’ve caught you up on the news from this week, let’s catch you up on exciting changes for The Lens.

Building on the most successful year in our history, The Lens is announcing a significant shake-up of editorial and administrative structures.

  • We are committing to deeper coverage of New Orleans culture, in particular the economics and regulation of our tourism, dining, arts and music.
  • Veteran reporter Charles Maldonado will take charge of the newsroom as editor Steve Myers departs for Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship.
  • Lens founder Karen Gadbois is reactivating her prize-winning coverage of land use, an issue at the heart of city politics and our viability as a habitable landscape at a time of onrushing climate change. We remain committed to our current subject areas.
  • The Lens is instituting an internship program through which we will work with university students seeking firsthand experience in the production, support and promotion of top-notch government accountability reporting.
  • Our volunteer board of directors is being expanded to include new members from New Orleans as well as New York and Los Angeles, with records of success in fundraising, preservation, media and commentary.
  • After a year of soul-searching and experiments in different models of administrative leadership, we welcome veteran New York City magazine editor Martin Pedersen as our acting executive director.

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.