Government & Politics
 

Documents show Entergy, PR firm knew more about astroturfing campaign than they let on

Corralling a group of supporters at public hearings was a vital part of Entergy New Orleans’ campaign to gain approval for its new power plant — so vital that its executives monitored exactly how many supporters would come, what they would say, and how early they would get there. They even helped design the T-shirts supporters would wear.

Yet there was one question Entergy apparently never asked the public-relations firm hired to orchestrate the campaign: How would these so-called supporters be recruited?

And when word started to spread that the supporters were paid to show up, the point person at Entergy didn’t ask the PR firm if there was any truth to the rumors. Instead, she asked for talking points in case Entergy executives were publicly confronted with the allegations.

Those details are contained in a trove of documents that Entergy turned over to the New Orleans City Council last week.

The documents cast doubt on Entergy’s central defense in the astroturfing scandal: that it hired a PR firm, The Hawthorn Group, to bring supporters to those meetings, but the power company didn’t know those supporters would be paid.

“Of course I don’t buy that. … Entergy understood,” said former Councilwoman Susan Guidry. She was the only member of the city council to vote against Entergy’s application to build the $210 million natural gas plant. “I feel certain that a lot of what we’ve been told is deceptive.”

The rumors turned out to be true. Dozens of the people wearing orange T-shirts were paid $60 to show up or $200 to deliver a prewritten speech. Some were professional actors.

The Lens reviewed every document turned over by Entergy — thousands of pages — to create a timeline of the $55,000 astroturfing campaign.

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 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.

The documents show that while Entergy officials were concerned about the appearance of legitimacy, they never asked whether the supporters would be paid. They illustrate how Hawthorn acted as an intermediary between Entergy and the company that paid the supporters, Crowds on Demand.

And they show that Entergy’s communications manager received three allegations that supporters had been paid, as early as October. Yet according to the documents, she never asked Hawthorn whether the allegations were true. And Entergy decided to continue working with Hawthorn after the first allegation.

What Entergy officials knew about the payments will be a key question for the investigators appointed by the city council to look into the matter.

When Entergy first publicly responded to the allegations in March, it denied the company had paid anyone.

The company quickly reversed course after The Lens published a story documenting how the supporters were recruited, paid, and coached on what to say.

Entergy has blamed a rogue contractor, Hawthorn, which claimed it didn’t know people had been paid, either. Hawthorn pointed the finger at the company it hired, Crowds on Demand.

The head of Crowds on Demand, in turn, disavowed his recruiters’ emphasis on money rather than genuine support.

Logan Atkinson Burke, the executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, doesn’t buy any of it.

“The ultimate responsibility is on Entergy,” she said. Her group is one of the central opponents to the power plant.

“The documents practically confirm they knew what was happening,” Burke said. “And if they didn’t, I’m not sure I want them to be my utility. It doesn’t take too much analysis to know what’s happening.”

The city council approved the plant with a 6-1 vote in March. Opponents have sued the council and want it to restart the process.

 

A final push for the power plant

In July, Entergy submitted its second application for a new power plant after its first attempt was derailed by lower projections of customer demand.

Entergy had promised the plant in earnings calls and stockholder meetings for years. It had been talking to city regulators about it as early as 2015, and it submitted the first application in 2016.

By the summer of 2017, the approval process had already taken a year. The company asked the council to greenlight the plant by the end of October. Opponents said that was too fast, and the council said it would decide in February at the earliest.

Entergy made deals with public relations and community engagement firms for the final push. One of those firms was The Hawthorn Group, which had worked with the company in the past.

The first record of contact with Hawthorn was Aug. 15, when Entergy communications manager Yolanda Pollard scheduled a call with six Hawthorn employees.

A week later, Hawthorn sent a proposal for a sprawling PR campaign that would cost Entergy up to $663,000. Hawthorn envisioned an organization that would advocate for the new power plant and other projects down the road.

Entergy New Orleans CEO Charles Rice Jr. was brought into the discussions during an August 24 call with Hawthorn CEO John Ashford.

After that call, Hawthorn sent a revised proposal for an even more expansive campaign.

The plan was to build two connected organizations. One would be a digital “community of grassroots supporters” who would participate in public hearings, attend demonstrations, write to politicians, and submit opinion articles to local publications. Hawthorn planned to recruit 3,000 to 5,000 members to the organization’s Facebook group in September alone.

The second part of the plan was a “GrassTops organization” made up of high-profile New Orleanians who would add credibility to Entergy’s arguments.

But it appears Entergy wanted Hawthorn to act more quickly.

On Sept. 5, Hawthorn President and Chief Operating Officer Suzanne Hammelman emailed Pollard with a third proposal that front-loaded the effort.

“I’ve revised the attached slightly to respond to what we heard Charles say last week,” Hammelman wrote. “So our immediate goal has changed a bit, and the urgency for crowd building and response is reflected. The September budget has been revised up a bit to reflect trying to do a LOT of stuff immediately.”

At some point in the following two weeks, Entergy decided against the half-million dollar campaign, though the documents don’t shed any light on why. Entergy was running short on time before a Oct. 16 public hearing at which the city council’s Utility Committee would gauge public opinion on the gas plant.

By Sept. 18, had Hammelman reached out to Crowds on Demand about a potential job in New Orleans. “The client CANNOT be disclosed in this effort,” Hammelman wrote.

The Los-Angeles based Crowds on Demand provides groups of people to participate in protests, attend government meetings and participate in letter-writing or phone-bank campaigns. For their more vain customers, they’ll send people to act like paparazzi, fans and bodyguards.

Crowds on Demand CEO Adam Swart sent Hammelman a price list for his services. Hours later, Hammelman emailed Pollard, writing, “Thanks for calling and the answer is ‘YES’ we can help turn people out for the Monday, October 16 hearing. We have a very good grassroots organizer on the ground in the New Orleans area.”

Hammelman didn’t say the grassroots organizer was Crowds on Demand; she never mentioned that company in her correspondence with Entergy executives. And none of the documents show Entergy executives corresponding directly with Crowds on Demand.

Hammelman quoted Swart’s prices:

  • 50 to 100 supporters: $8,500-$14,000
  • 10 speakers: $6,500
  • 50 to 100 T-shirts: $1,000-$1,500

She tacked on a management fee of $7,500.

“These will be 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,” she wrote.

But Hammelman also warned against turning out supporters without creating a public-facing advocacy group.

“I would caution 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.”

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

Immediately after Hammelman heard from Pollard, she went back to Swart: “Project sold.”

Swart didn’t say in the documents how the supporters would be recruited. Pollard never asked, according to the documents.

In response to a request for comment, Entergy stood by its prior explanation. “Entergy contracted with Hawthorn to identify legitimate grassroots support. Hawthorn violated the terms of the contract and entered into a subcontract with Crowds on Demand. Crowds on Demand paid individuals to appear at two public meetings without Entergy’s knowledge.”

Entergy involved in key decisions leading up to October meeting

The plan was set. For $28,680, Hawthorn would provide 75 supporters to attend the October meeting of the council’s Utility Committee meeting, plus 10 speakers to deliver prewritten speeches.

They would all wear orange shirts with the slogan: “Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power.” Pollard helped pick the color and slogan for the shirts.

She helped shape the talking points. At one point, she discouraged Hawthorn’s supporters from referring to New Orleans’ faulty electrical distribution system. The Alliance for Affordable Energy, she wrote, “has been using distribution system reliability issues … to encourage customers to oppose the construction of the New Orleans Power Station.”

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

Entergy appeared to be particularly concerned with the consumer advocacy group. It had been making the rounds at neighborhood association meetings, explaining that the city’s daily electricity disruptions were due to an aging distribution system, and a new power plant wouldn’t fix those problems.

On the same day in August, 12 neighborhood associations asked to be part of an official investigation into power outages throughout the city. An Entergy executive sent one of the petitions to his colleagues, including Rice. “Latest petition,” he wrote.

“We have to get a strategy around this,” Rice responded. “I am going to work with Chanel [Lagarde, Entergy’s vice president of utility communications] to get an outside consultant, the Hawthorn group to begin some type of campaign/strategy against the alliance.”

At this point, Hawthorn had submitted its proposal for the six-figure campaign.

On Oct. 3, Pollard asked Hammelman about ordering extra shirts for Entergy’s employees and other supporters. “What’s your take on union leaders also wearing orange tshirts, similar to attendees you’re securing?”

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

Pollard agreed and ordered extras, bringing the total cost to $32,142.11.

But Hammelman’s response spurred Pollard to ask about something else.

“To your point about lessening the questions — How do the participants [you’re] securing answer questions about their support and affiliation, if asked by the media, etc.?” Pollard asked.

Hammelman took this question to Swart, who told her the recruits are told to avoid reporters.

“While they’ll decline to speak with the media, they’ll be able to articulate why they’re at the meeting if put in a situation where dodging a question would be awkward,” Swart wrote. “They mostly say they’re concerned people who’ve experienced so many power outages that they demand a real backup power source.”

Hammelman forwarded the answers to Pollard, adding that “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).”

Then Hammelman asked Swart: “What do they say if someone says, ‘are you paid to do this?’ or ‘Who is paying you to do this?’”

Swart responded: “Some clients prefer we don’t directly say something that isn’t truthful, others don’t. It’s entirely up to you.”

“Let’s avoid saying ‘no,’” Hammelman responded. “I DO want — particularly the speakers — well-trained and practiced on this question in particular. It is going to get asked and reporters and other are going to push hard.”

Swart wrote back: “We won’t directly say ‘no’ (though we won’t say ‘yes’ either). We’ll make sure to do it with finesse.”

After The Lens documented the astroturfing campaign, Hammelman sent a statement to The Lens: “Paying participants was not requested or authorized by our client or by Hawthorn. Clearly, there was a misunderstanding, which we deeply regret.”

When The Lens sought comment for this story, she sent the same statement.

Hawthorn is no stranger to astroturfing. In 2009, while working for a coal industry association, the company got into hot water after a subcontractor sent fraudulent letters to members of Congress, purporting to be from minority and senior rights groups opposing a climate bill.

“Hawthorn’s job is to deceive people,” said Monique Harden, an assistant director for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “We’d be doing ourselves a disservice by going down this rabbit hole of, did the money that went to the paid actors come directly from Entergy’s hands.

She continued, “The goal of any investigation is to find out if Entergy had any involvement in this deception. Yes. How? By contracting with a company that has a track record of providing these services.”

A successful turnout

Hawthorn and Crowds on Demand came through on their promises for the October meeting. The room was dominated by the orange shirts, and most speakers voiced their support for the plant.

“I think we’ve got them outnumbered,” Rice chuckled to a colleague as the meeting got underway.

“Great turnout tonight,” Pollard wrote to Hammelman afterward. “There was a supportive sea of orange Many of our employees and nonprofit partners also wore the t-shirts. Thanks for all of your support!!!”

But at least one person became suspicious. Danil Faust, a former candidate for the state legislature, saw a friend wearing an orange shirt. When their eyes met, the friend put a finger to his lips.

That friend, Keith Keough, told Faust he had been paid to be there. Faust tweeted that people had been paid to support Entergy’s application and had signed non-disclosure agreements.

Keough later talked to The Lens, along with two others who described how they had been recruited and paid.

Pollard sent Faust’s tweets to Hammelman, saying only that Faust was “the individual we discussed.” It’s not clear what discussion she referred to.

Hammelman forwarded the messages to Swart, who responded that he thought Faust was bluffing. “I’d be more concerned if this was coming from more credible sources and/or had more traction,” he wrote.

Swart did admit, however, that the recruits had been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. “Well someone appears to be talking,” Hammelman wrote.

In May, Swart told The Lens that Crowds on Demand does pay people to make sure they show up and stay on message, but he argued that doesn’t mean they’re not real supporters.

Hawthorn gets hired again

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. Documents turned over to the city council include discussions about providing shirts to people who weren’t paid, which would lessen questions about the astroturfing campaign.

Faust’s allegation didn’t dissuade Entergy from working with Hawthorn again. The power company hired Hawthorn to run a similar operation for a Feb. 21 hearing, when the council’s Utility Committee would vote on whether to allow the company to build the plant.

This time, Hawthorn agreed to provide 30 supporters and 10 speakers for $22,478.40.

The meeting was held in an auditorium at the Pan American Life Center. It’s a smaller venue than the city council chamber, so getting supporters there before opponents was key.

“I received confirmation that the room will open at 8:30 am,” Entergy Vice President Gary Huntley wrote to several other Entergy executives, including Rice, the day before the meeting. “Let’s get as many of our folks there ahead of the bus from NO East.”

Pollard sent that message to Hammelman, who sent it to Swart. Swart told Hammelman that he’d get the speakers there by 8:00 a.m., two hours early.

The room filled up before the meeting, and security guards closed the doors. The scene in the hallway that morning was raucous, with opponents upset that they had been locked out — a fact that Swart noted in an email to Hammelman.

“This information puts Entergy in the driver’s seat, explicitly saying we want to fill up the room before community members can get there,” Burke said.

The utility committee voted that day 4-1 to pass Entergy’s application on to the full council for consideration.

One thing caught Pollard off-guard. “I was a little surprised that some folks wore the orange shirts again,” she wrote to Hammelman the day after the meeting.

“I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Hammelman responded. “I expect it was an individual decision — based on the fact that we wanted to make sure some of the same people showed up because that is what would happen organically.”

Suspicion grows

As Hammelman had predicted might happen, people were getting suspicious. On March 5, Pollard sent her an email that was making the rounds, claiming Entergy paid people $120 to attend city council meetings.

These rumors came at a critical time: In three days, city council members would cast their final vote on the power plant.

This was the second time Pollard had heard about people being paid. But according to the documents, she didn’t ask Hammelman whether that was true.

Instead, she simply asked for talking points for her executives, saying they’d only use them if they were asked about it at the meeting.

Hammelman forwarded the question to Swart, which had become routine.

Swart proposed answers rested on two arguments: People beyond his recruits did support the plant, and there was no evidence of the payments. “The people who are going to be raising these theories are hysterical conspiracy theorists,” he wrote.

He suggested a brazen counterattack, that Entergy bring more of his recruits to the March 8 vote to disprove the allegations. Hammelman didn’t agree.

Hammelman sent the talking points to Pollard a couple hours later. They didn’t deny that people had been paid. Instead, she recommended that Entergy executives plead ignorance with narrowly crafted denials, emphasize community support for the plant, and note that liberal groups have paid people to protest.

“We recruit support the same way other organizations do,” one response said. “This is, perhaps, one man’s way of stirring up controversy and create an illusion that we have to pay for support. That’s simply not true.”

The pressure mounted. The day before the vote, Pollard received questions from a writer for DeSmog Blog, which covers misinformation around climate science. The writer said someone had gone on the record to say he had been paid $120 to make a speech at a city council meeting.

Pollard forwarded the questions to Hammelman. Again, she didn’t ask whether the allegations were true.

“Hired as an actor? Apparently their evidence is one person who is delusional or just lying,” Hammelman wrote to Pollard.

The day before, Swart had reassured Hammelman that the non-disclosure agreements were done under “a firm with a name that sounds nothing like a company that would provide paid speakers/protesters.”

She responded, “Does the same company issue a check to them?”

The March 8 meeting went as planned, and City Council approved the plant. “Sounds like they didn’t ask the questions,” Hammelman wrote to Pollard soon after.

“No they didn’t go there,” Pollard responded.

Council selects joint investigators

The council plans to go there now. Thursday, it selected the law firm of Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert, as well as retired Judge Calvin Johnson, to serve as joint investigators. They’ll have the power to subpoena documents and witnesses to testify under oath.

Entergy will foot the bill of the monthlong investigation, and the city council has specified that Entergy cannot pass the cost onto its customers.

In the meantime, Entergy can continue to prepare the site in eastern New Orleans for construction. Even if the investigation concludes that Entergy knew about the paid actors, it’s unclear whether there will be any consequences.

“We really need to see more than an investigation,” said Grace Morris of the Sierra Club at Thursday’s city council meeting. She said the council should call for an immediate rehearing.

Entergy revised its suppliers’ code of conduct after its own investigation put the blame on Hawthorn. The policy bans astroturfing, defined as paying people to attend or speak at public meetings of any government body with oversight over the company.

Astroturfing, though, is commonly defined as any campaign to create the illusion of grassroots support.

Harden said astroturfing is a central part of Entergy’s playbook.

“The job of regulating the public utility is to ensure it’s serving the public interest,” she said. “And as soon as that public utility is entering into contracts to deny and deceive the public, we’ve got a problem.”

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