NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Electricity supplier Entergy New Orleans claims in court that a Virginia-based public relations firm hired actors instead of recruiting supporters to speak at public meetings in favor of a proposed power plant, spurring a costly investigation into whether the utility knew its backers were paid.
Entergy, represented by New Orleans attorney Thomas Flanagan, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Hawthorn Group in New Orleans federal court, seeking damages including hundreds of thousands of dollars it says the City Council spent looking into the matter before concluding that Entergy was not aware the speakers were hired actors.
The utility provider is not seeking repayment of the $5 million “charitable contribution” it offered the City Council to resolve the fiasco, however, according to a statement emailed Thursday from an Entergy spokesperson.
“For more than 50 years,” the lawsuit explains, “the Michaud Generating Station in New Orleans East served as the ‘cornerstone’ of Entergy’s electric system, providing 781 megawatts of local generating capacity.”
But because of maintenance and operational issues, the Michaud plant was deactivated in 2016, “leaving New Orleans with no local electric generating resource,” according to the complaint.
“This situation ‘deeply concerned’ the City Council, which concern was well-founded” because of the risk of widespread outages in the case of a major storm, the lawsuit says.
Thereafter, Entergy applied to build a new power station in New Orleans and was met with resistance.
In the application, the company says it sought approval of a 226-megawatt combustion turbine at the Michoud site. Entergy later supplemented its application to request approval of either the originally proposed turbine or seven combustion engine generation sets, with a total capacity of 128 megawatts.
Entergy claims polling showed that 78 percent of residents in New Orleans East supported the project and a similar number of people in the entire metro area backed it.
Last year, Entergy contacted the Hawthorn Group, “an international public affairs company that specializes in community outreach,” according to the lawsuit, to help “supplement Entergy’s internal public outreach efforts” and drum up support for an Oct. 16, 2017, public meeting.
“Entergy explained to Hawthorn that it already had an organization in place to support Entergy’s internal public affairs group conducting community outreach, and that Entergy was hoping to identify and engage a broader group of supporters in the process,” the complaint states.
Rather than recruit supporters as requested, however, Hawthorn allegedly hired paid actors to appear in support of the plant through a third-party acting agency out of California called Crowds on Demand.
Entergy claims it did not realize actors had been paid to speak at the meeting until it saw two posts on Twitter to that effect a week later.
The utility says it contacted Hawthorn and was assured by its CEO that “Entergy had not paid anyone to appear at the public meeting.”
During a second meeting Hawthorn was hired to help with on Feb. 21, 2018, a man wearing a marked-up, orange Entergy T-shirt allegedly told the City Council that his friend had been paid to appear in support of the proposed project at the October meeting.
When pressed again about whether paid actors had appeared at the meetings, “Hawthorn responded unequivocally: ‘Entergy did not pay anyone for their support,’” according to the complaint.
Entergy says it discovered for the first time in May that Hawthorn had subcontracted Crowds on Demand to work on the project.
“Throughout this time, Hawthorn maintained the charade that it had engaged in legitimate community outreach activities and had not paid anyone to attend a City Council meeting in support of the [New Orleans Power Station] project. Following publication of an article in The Lens on May 4, 2018, which contained a link to credible information substantiating the payment allegations, Entergy’s general counsel confronted Hawthorn’s chairman of the board, who confessed that Hawthorn had retained Crowds on Demand without Entergy’s knowledge to work on the NOPS project,” the lawsuit states.
The complaint continues, “He also admitted that Hawthorn had not requested, and had not received, authority from anyone at Entergy to pay supporters to appear at either the October 16, 2017 public meeting or the February 21, 2018 utility committee meeting.”
The Hawthorn Group did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
The firm’s website says, “We are masters in the art of advocacy.”
The Energy and Policy Institute, which calls itself a “watchdog exposing the attacks on renewable energy and countering misinformation by fossil fuel interests,” reported that Hawthorn has a “long record of being paid by utilities to lie to the public.”
The report states that “a simple Google search would have shown Entergy that Hawthorn’s ‘national reputation’ is a long and sordid one, rife with fraudulent antics: Hawthorn has been caught on multiple occasions deceiving public officials with ‘astroturf’ operations designed to manufacture the appearance of popular support for a utility company’s position where none exists.”
Entergy’s attorney, Flanagan, did not respond to an email request for comment.