Inside the News Room
 

The Lens’ Week in Review: What did Entergy know and when did Entergy know it?

Welcome to your week, New Orleans. Here it is. Part of it, in any case. Let’s relive it.

If you’re interested in having your week delivered directly to you, you can click this red text. You’ll get your week, every week, right in your inbox, plus ongoing story alerts.

Powergate 2018: What did Entergy know about the astroturfing campaign?

We reviewed 6,000 pages of records on the Entergy power plant astroturfing campaign. And it looks like Entergy knew more than we’ve been led to believe about the people who were paid to show up at public meetings to support the company’s proposed power plant in New Orleans East.

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?

They did ask other questions, though, about what to do if the public and the media became suspicious.

“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.?” Entergy communications manager Yolanda Pollard asked a Hawthorn executive in one email.

The executive, Suzanne Hamelman, consulted with Adam Swart of Crowds on Demand — the California-based company directly responsible for hiring supporters — then forwarded Swart’s thoughts to Pollard.

The response: “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.”

Still, Entergy has insisted it doesn’t know anything. The company claimed in a May report that the campaign was a result of Hawthorn going rogue.

“Of course I don’t buy that. … Entergy understood,” former City Councilwoman Susan Guidry told The Lens. “I feel certain that a lot of what we’ve been told is deceptive.”

A charter school held on to employee retirement money for months; a similar case in Maryland led to a theft conviction, prison sentence.

It’s time to read about Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy again.

To review: The embattled Central City school has been repeatedly flagged for financial issues by the Orleans Parish school district and the Recovery School District. Its chief financial officer, Brent Washington, is under a state ethics investigation. And The Lens found that Harney’s board president, Rev. Charles Southall III, charged $1,514 in fine dining over six months in 2016.

This week, we discovered another financial irregularity. Last year, the school delayed employees’ retirement account contributions for weeks, sometimes months. The delayed contributions totaled $55,000 and affected at least 40 employees.

The school provided payroll and retirement records to The Lens detailing how much employees were paid in October, November and December and what was withheld from their checks. The retirement deposits for those months weren’t made until Feb. 19 and Feb. 20.

The practice appears to violate federal guidelines. John Weiler, a local tax attorney, said employees’ withholdings should be transferred to retirement accounts within 15 days of the end of each month.

What’s more, when the employees finally did get their money back, Harney didn’t pay them interest or account for potentially lost investment earnings. The delays occurred when markets were performing particularly well.

The Lens found a similar case in Baltimore. The head of an addiction and mental health treatment center also delayed retirement payments and later paid back only exactly what he had held. No interest. No accounting for lost earnings.

He was twice sued in federal court and was later convicted of theft.

Lens investigation into traffic diversion spurs ethics complaint from Southern Poverty Law Center

A story by The Lens last year revealed that district attorneys around the state were offering drivers what sounded like a very good deal: Write a check and your speeding ticket disappears. Called traffic diversion, the program allows DAs to have traffic charges dismissed without a court date.

But it wasn’t a good deal for any of the other public agencies that traditionally share traffic fine revenue, particularly public defenders’ offices. With traffic diversion, DAs were able to keep the funds in their own budgets.

This week, we found out the Southern Poverty Law Center has been reading our work. They filed a complaint with the state Ethics Board against four DAs who used traffic diversion, saying diversion fees amount to payoffs to prosecutors in return for better treatment.

“District attorneys across the state openly violate Louisiana’s ethics laws by using their charging authority as a cudgel to extract millions of dollars each year from residents,” Southern Poverty Law Center Staff Attorney Micah West wrote in the complaint.

The group is asking the Ethics Board to investigate and order prosecutors to return the money they collected from traffic diversion.

Debra Howell: Audubon Commission’s ‘master plan’ is a sham to avoid public input

The public portions of Audubon Park are disappearing. They have been for decades, writes columnist Debra Howell. That’s why the public has been calling for the Audubon Commission to craft a master land use plan for the park since at least the 1970s, during a planned expansion of the zoo.

“A master plan for the whole park should have been a part of the zoo planning so that redevelopment of all parts of the park could proceed in tandem,” read a 1974 editorial in The Times-Picayune.

Howell writes: “Clamor by citizens and neighborhood groups for a master plan rose again in 1992, when the Commission decided to demolish the Whitney Young Pool. And again in 2001, when commissioners decided to expand the golf course and build a new clubhouse. And again in 2010, when they attempted to transfer to Children’s Hospital park acreage that included Avenger Field and the tennis courts. And again in 2016, when they attempted to build a soccer stadium on the riverfront Fly.”

Next week, the commission will have a pivotal meeting about a master plan. But, the public was informed in February, the zoo and golf course — 44 percent of the park’s land — will be off-limits to future planning.

“Audubon’s current master-planning process has excluded large parts of the park from public consideration, fails to engage middle- and lower-income New Orleanians in the process, and provides inadequate financial information,” Howell writes. “It’s time for the Audubon Commission to hold itself accountable to the citizens they are supposed to serve.”

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
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.