The Lens wins three first-place awards from Press Club of New Orleans

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The Lens took home three first place awards from the Press Club of New Orleans on Saturday, winning top honors in the investigative, education and government/political reporting categories.

Reporter Michael Isaac Stein’s series on the Entergy New Orleans paid actor scandal won the investigative category.

In May 2018, Stein confirmed that actors were paid to appear at New Orleans City Council meetings in support Entergy New Orleans’ proposed $200 million gas power plant in eastern New Orleans.

The public outcry that resulted from the revelation led to a City Council investigation. The company was forced to release thousands of pages of documents about the public relations campaign for the power plant, which was much larger in scope than the so-called “astroturfing.” The influence campaign stretched for nearly three years and cost more than $1 million.

Investigators concluded that Entergy “knew or should have known” about the plan to hire people to support the plant.

The revelations led to a $5 million fine against the company. And though the council allowed Entergy to continue work on the plant, that is now in question. This summer, a judge issued an order voiding the council’s 2018 vote to approve the project, saying the use of paid actors at public meetings undermined the state Open Meetings Law.

And Stein got first place in government/political writing for a December story on the city’s crime surveillance system. The story, on a June 2018 drug bust that failed to turn up any drugs, included surveillance footage demonstrating the capabilities of the city’s crime camera system.

And the story challenged claims that city surveillance was a largely “complaint-based system” that searches for relevant footage after a complaint has been made. In this case, police appeared to be using city crime cameras to coordinate a proactive operation.

Reporter Marta Jewson won first place in education for her June 2018 story “Brady’s room: One family navigates special education in New Orleans.”

The story focused on Brady LaFleur, a 14-year-old New Orleans public school student who has autism and Down Syndrome. At the time, Brady was going to school in a specially outfitted room inside the old McDonogh 35 building. He was the only student who was using it.

Brady’s mother, Erin LaFleur, said he bounced from school to home — including a stint at  Pinecrest Supports and Services Center, a state-run center for people with developmental disabilities — before they found the room, where he was getting one-on-one instruction. She said it was working for Brady.

But the school district planned to gut the old McDonogh 35 building and turn it into a career training center. Brady needed a new space that could accommodate him. Finding it would prove challenging in the decentralized New Orleans school system.

Former Lens staffer Tom Wright also received a third-place award in the special section category for Behind The Lens, our weekly podcast, which Wright launched last year. Since Wright’s departure, Jessica Rosgaard has taken over as host and producer of the podcast.

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