Government & Politics
 

City Council’s investigation into power plant astroturfing campaign hasn’t started yet

More than a month after the New Orleans City Council selected a law firm and a retired judge to investigate the use of paid actors to boost a new power plant, the work hasn’t started.

On May 18, when the city council held a news conference to announce its investigation, Council President Jason Williams said he wanted it to move quickly.

But the wheels of government apparently don’t move that quickly.

Now, there’s a good chance the investigation won’t be done until September.

That’s going to delay a ruling in a lawsuit over whether the city council violated the state Open Meetings Law at two public meetings where key votes were taken on the plant.

Councilmembers said they would investigate the use of paid actors the week after The Lens revealed that dozens of people, including actors, were paid $60 to $200 to attend meetings and speak on behalf of the plant.

Entergy admitted it hired a company to recruit supporters, but said it didn’t know they would be paid. Documents turned over to the city council, however, show Entergy officials were intimately involved in the effort to turn out supporters, heard allegations that those supporters were paid, and discussed how to respond.

The council approved Entergy’s $210 million gas plant on March 8 in a 6-1 vote.

Entergy says the plant is needed to guard against an unlikely but potentially catastrophic transmission problem that could leave the city in the dark. Opponents say there are other, cheaper options that would eliminate that risk rather than a new plant.

In April, those opponents sued the city council, arguing that it broke the state Open Meetings Law because some people were shut out of meetings in February and March.

The plaintiffs consist of two New Orleans residents and five groups opposed to the plant, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, VAYLA New Orleans, Justice & Beyond, 350 New Orleans and the Sierra Club.

The city council agrees that some people initially couldn’t get into the meetings, but said those who waited eventually did get in, and no one was systematically excluded.

Filling meeting rooms with supporters was part of Entergy’s strategy, according to documents turned over to the city council. An Entergy executive emailed colleagues before one meeting, telling them to get people in the room before a bus hired by a community group arrived.

Tuesday morning, the two sides gathered in the courtroom of Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin.

She planned to issue a ruling Tuesday morning, but the plaintiffs asked her to wait until the council’s investigation is complete. Bill Quigley, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Griffin the investigation should be done in about 10 days.

That’s when Assistant City Attorney William Goforth chimed in. “The investigation hasn’t actually started yet,” he said.

The city council officially sought applications from firms on May 24. On June 21, it selected the law firm of Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert, as well as retired Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson.

The city attorney’s office hasn’t finalized the contract, Andrew Tuozzolo, chief of staff for Councilwoman Helena Moreno, told The Lens.

He said everything should be wrapped up by the end of July.

Investigators have 30 days to issue a report, but they could request an extension.

At a hearing last week, Griffin seemed most concerned with whether citizens had been prevented from speaking out at meetings about the plant. She acknowledged that it was unreasonable to expect a public body to allow everyone to attend public meetings that attract widespread interest.

Griffin opted not to rule at that hearing because she raised a technical issue with the plaintiffs’ affidavits.

Tuesday, Goforth argued that Griffin didn’t need to wait for the investigation to rule on the open meetings issue.

She responded that an appeals court could order her to consider the investigation, so she may as well see what it says.

As to whether the paid actors had an effect on the council’s decision, Griffin said, “That’s a conversation for a different day.”

The plaintiffs told Griffin that more time would enable them to pursue a settlement, but attorneys for the city said that’s unlikely to happen.

“Either the actions of the Council and the [utility committee] stand, or they are void,” city attorneys wrote in response to the plaintiff’s request for more time. “Petitioners have not suggested any alternative result that they would find satisfactory.”

Griffin set a status conference for Aug. 24 but encouraged the two sides to sit down before then. “Smart people do that,” she said.

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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.