On May 18, the New Orleans City Council held a press conference to announce an investigation into a scheme to pay actors to mimic support for Entergy’s proposed power plant in eastern New Orleans.
Newly inaugurated Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen, who represents the district where the plant will be built, was there.
A reporter asked, “Are any of you receiving any kind of business deals or anything other than your regulatory business with Entergy? And have you received any campaign donations from them?”
Along with every councilmember there, Nguyen said no. But that wasn’t true.
Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training, or VIET, the nonprofit group Nguyen founded and ran, received at least $27,625 in grants and payments from Entergy between 2016 and 2018.
Nguyen wasn’t the only politically connected person involved in Entergy’s $530,000 public-relations campaign for the power plant. Two top officials in LaToya Cantrell’s mayoral campaign were also on Entergy’s payroll.
Bill Rouselle was Cantrell’s chief strategist. Bob Tucker was her campaign chairman and served on her mayoral transition team.
Their companies billed Entergy tens of thousands of dollars to bolster public support for the plant.
According to invoices submitted to the city council as part of its investigation, Entergy paid Tucker’s company Green Pastures Unlimited $95,240 for strategic messaging from 2017 to 2018.
Rouselle’s public relations firm Bright Moments received $336,583 from 2016 to 2018. At least $166,800 of that represented hours billed by another public relations firm, The Ehrhardt Group, which was a subcontractor.
“At times, we will work with consultants who can help us understand local concerns and priorities, and help us to communicate the value and benefits we can bring to a community,” said Emily Parenteau, Entergy’s director of corporate and executive communications.
Bright Moments and Ehrhardt monitored groups opposed to the power plant, conducted a media relations campaign, and placed lawn signs and flyers near Entergy’s community meetings about the plant.
They wrote scripts and talking points for speakers at public meetings, op-eds on behalf of Entergy New Orleans CEO Charles Rice Jr., and constituent letters encouraging the city council to approve the plant.
“It sounds like they were organizing their resources to convince the city council to their point of view. It’s basically a huge lobbying effort,” University of New Orleans political science professor Ed Chervenak said.
Entergy expected the power plant to be a campaign issue
In May 2017, Cantrell, who was then serving on the city council, announced Rouselle had joined her mayoral campaign.
Three months later, as Entergy prepared for its final push for the plant, Rouselle set up a meeting with both of his clients: Cantrell and Rice.
It was at least the second such meeting between the three; they had met in December 2016, before Cantrell officially entered the race. Rouselle had been working on Entergy’s campaign since August 2016.
“I was there as a contractor for Entergy and I was asked to set the meeting, to have them discuss the power plant,” Rouselle said. “I participated in the meeting, that’s as much as I can tell you.”
“I had no further conversation with her about it,” he said.
Rouselle billed Entergy for an hour of work — $150 — for the meeting.
In October, as the mayoral and council campaigns heated up, Entergy and Bright Moments signed another agreement that authorized another $255,000 in work.
“The proposed New Orleans Power Station is a potential campaign issue during the local 2017 mayoral and councilmember election,” the contract said. “Additional monitoring and messaging is required.”
Cantrell’s communications director, Beau Tidwell, told The Lens in an email that she “had more than one meeting with Mr. Rice regarding the proposed gas plant to discuss concerns she and the community publicly expressed. The mayor took his points under consideration as part of her broader analysis ahead of the vote.”
Tidwell said Cantrell knew Rouselle and Tucker were working for Entergy. But, he said, “On this and on every other issue — Mayor Cantrell thinks for herself.”
In March, Cantrell voted in favor of the plant, along with five other council members.
Consultants say they countered misinformation from opponents
Rouselle said his job was to provide reliable information to the public, not connect the company to politicians.
“Our work with Entergy has been based on what we were able to determine to be valid information about what the environmental impacts were and what the plant was intended to do,” he said. “I quite frankly feel very comfortable” with his firm’s work, which he said was “an effort to make sure that this city has the power it needs, when it needs it.”
Bright Moments and Ehrhardt arranged public meetings and created social media posts and website content in favor of the plant.
They monitored what invoices called “the opposition,” sending people to attend meetings held by the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and the Alliance for Affordable Energy. Employees wrote daily reports on opponents’ activities.
After The Lens published a story raising questions about the rationale for the plant, an employee for The Ehrhardt Group did some background research on the reporter. Another time, the employee sent Entergy a potentially damaging story about a local developer after he wrote a column critical of the plant.
Tucker, a longtime New Orleans political operative, worked closely with Rouselle on the Entergy campaign through his public relations firm Green Pastures Unlimited. His company’s invoices don’t break down each task, but Tucker said he handled broad strategic messaging.
“Generally I’ve been assisting them with the community,” Tucker said, “ensuring that they were hitting on the key features of the plant, particularly the job-creating aspect of it and the fact that there were no health hazards.”
Both were matters of contention as Entergy sought approval for the plant. Entergy projected in 2016 that the plant would offer 12 permanent jobs. Opponents cited studies that say people near natural gas plants have more health problems, including asthma.
Green Pastures’ contract with Entergy required the company to meet with Entergy New Orleans’ regulators — meaning the city council — to push them to approve the plant. But Tucker said that didn’t happen.
“I never met with any regulators,” he said. “The advisory role that I provided, I have no second thoughts about that in terms of helping them to get their message out and helping people to get the facts and the truth — as opposed to a lot of the distortions and false narratives that were being rolled out.”
Nguyen’s nonprofit received grants, provided translations
Nguyen played a smaller role. She was the head of VIET, a nonprofit that provides educational and economic support to minority residents.
In late 2016, Entergy approved a $20,000 grant to the group for children’s afterschool and summer programs.
Starting that year, when Entergy held meetings around the city to describe the plant proposal, the company paid VIET $7,625 to translate meeting notices and flyers and to provide interpreters at meetings. All but about $1,000 of that was directly tied to the plant.
Most of the work occurred after Nguyen entered the race. It lasted through March, a couple months before she took office.
When asked if she was aware of VIET’s business with Entergy, Nguyen said, “I guess I never saw it.”
She said she received emails from Entergy asking VIET for translation services. She relayed the requests to VIET’s program director to provide a price.
“Then she sent it back to me, then I sent it to Entergy,” Nguyen said. “Then they agreed and we started to work and that was the end of my involvement.”
Nguyen was VIET’s executive director until she took office. At her request, the current executive director provided The Lens with several invoices that were not included in the documents Entergy handed over to the council.
Nguyen said she couldn’t remember if she had met with Entergy officials when she was running for office. “I don’t believe I did,” she said. “I did a lot of reading on my own, and even when I campaigned I would tell my constituents that based on what I read, I felt that the plant was a good project.”
That clarity didn’t come across in news coverage.
In March, a resident in eastern New Orleans voiced frustration over Nguyen’s refusal to take a stand on the plant. Later that month, when WWL-TV asked Nguyen to clarify her position, she said, “I really believe that Mr. Rice will look at and explore other alternatives to help the community at the end of the day.”
By then, her predecessors on the the council had already approved the plant.
Nguyen told The Lens she doesn’t believe her past work with Entergy will create a conflict of interest.
The most recent invoice VIET provided to The Lens was dated May 1, a few weeks before Nguyen was asked whether she had received “any kind of business deals” with Entergy.
“I was thinking, did I receive any direct payment from Entergy in reference to my campaign,” she told The Lens. “That was my interpretation.”
Asked if she would change her answer in retrospect, she said, “No, I’d probably say, ‘Can you be more specific in reference to what type of payment,’ because I have worked for organizations that have worked for Entergy and that have received payment for services we provide.”