Government & Politics
 

Investigation into Entergy paid actor scandal delayed by new cache of evidence

The results of an investigation into the use of actors who were paid to appear at New Orleans City Council meetings in support of a proposed Entergy New Orleans power plant — originally due this week — will likely be delayed until October.

City Councilwoman Helena Moreno has filed a motion to extend the deadline for 45 days, to October 19. Investigators requested the delay after recently receiving new records from Entergy New Orleans.

The council will vote on the delay during its meeting on Thursday.

In August, the city signed a contract with a team of attorneys from the law firm of Sher, Garner, Cahill, Richter, Klein & Hilbert — led by former federal prosecutor Matt Coman — and retired Judge Calvin Johnson to conduct a 30-day investigation into Entergy’s role in the scandal.

But in the past few weeks, Entergy has given investigators an additional trove of documents, according to Moreno’s chief of staff Andrew Tuozzolo. He said that the deadline extension is necessary to give the investigators sufficient time to sort through the new evidence.

The company provided the new documents to investigators, rather than the city council’s utility regulatory office. It’s not clear what the new documents are or why they weren’t included in a batch of records the company provided to the council in June.

The council launched the investigation after a report by The Lens revealed that people, including some professional actors, were paid between $60 and $200 to attend public meetings to support the company’s proposed $210 million power plant in eastern New Orleans. Some were paid to give speeches in favor of the plant.

In May, Entergy admitted hiring a public relations firm, The Hawthorn Group, to recruit supporters. But the company denied knowing that the supporters would be paid or that Hawthorn would bring on Crowds on Demand — a California-based company that specializes in hiring people to show up at protests and public hearings — as a subcontractor.

The council approved the power plant with a 6-1 vote in March, two months before the Lens published its investigation.

On May 24, the council passed a motion initiating the investigation into Entergy New Orleans and demanding the company hand over all documents related to the use of paid actors and the company’s internal investigation into the matter. In June, Entergy handed over hundreds of pages of contracts, emails, and invoices related to the power plant campaign.

Those documents showed that Entergy executives knew more about the astroturfing campaign than they had initially let on. They revealed that top Entergy New Orleans employees were involved in developing intimate details of the plan, including the numbers of supporters and speakers that would attend the meetings and the design of the shirts they would wear.

One of those executives was former Entergy New Orleans CEO Charles Rice Jr., who stepped down from his post last month, taking a job in the company’s legal department.

The documents also showed the scope of the company’s attempts to rally public support for the plant. The $55,000 that Entergy was billed for the paid supporters was only a fraction of a $1.3 million campaign that included local reputation management, scripting letters of support for the plant, tracking media coverage and monitoring groups that opposed the plant.

The investigation’s delay has implications for a lawsuit brought against the city council by a coalition of groups that had opposed the power plant. In July, a judge said that she would delay her ruling until the results of the investigation were released. At the time, the investigation was expected to be complete this month.

The plaintiffs in the suit — the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, VAYLA New Orleans, Justice & Beyond, 350 New Orleans and the Sierra Club — accuse the city council of violating the state Open Meetings Law after members of the public were kept out of two city council meetings related to Entergy’s application. The groups are demanding that the council void its approval for the plant and restart the process.

Affidavits submitted to court claim that people were shut out of a key meeting on Feb. 21, when the council’s utility committee voted to advance Entergy’s application to a full city council vote. Paid supporters attended that meeting.

In an email on the morning of the meeting, one Entergy executive wrote, “I received confirmation that the room will open at 8:30 am. Let’s get as many of our folks there ahead of the bus from NO East.”

Lawyers representing the city council have said that the meeting room was at capacity, and that those who waited were eventually allowed in.

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About Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and Pacific Standard. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which he used to report on water scarcity, division, and colonialism in Cyprus.