Some of the concerned citizens who turned up at city council meetings in New Orleans to support a proposed power plant were in fact paid actors, according to a new report.
The Lens New Orleans reported Friday that at least four people received payment for appearing at city council meetings last October and February. The meetings were held to survey public opinion on efforts by Entergy, an energy company that serves areas throughout the Deep South, to develop a new power plant in New Orleans East, located in the city’s Ninth Ward.
In March, the city council approved the power plant by a vote of 6-1, overruling the objections of opponents who say the plant is expensive and will pollute eastern New Orleans. A number of local residents spoke in favor of the power plant over the course of more than 22 meetings. But doubts are now being raised over just how authentic those voices were.
Roughly 50 people turned out to support a $210 million effort to build a power plant in the city during one October meeting, but several attendees told the Lens they were paid $60 to wear orange shirts and express support for the endeavor.
Actors with speaking roles who read pre-written statements were reportedly paid $200. One told the publication he recognized as many as 15 people in the audience as local performers.
“They paid us to sit through the meeting and clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power,” said Keith Keough, who said that he was “not political” but needed the money.
The actors were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements barring them from discussing the agreement, but several agreed to speak with the Lens on condition of anonymity. Keough, who moved to North Carolina in the time period following the meetings, agreed to be named after a friend who recognized him at the gatherings encouraged him to come forward.
The staged performances seem to have been organized by two men, Garrett Wilkerson and Daniel Taylor, who are not believed to be from New Orleans. In a Facebook message, Wilkerson laid out the specifics of the job to one actor.
“The council already supports it, this is mostly just to show them that the citizens don’t have a problem with it,” Wilkerson said. “Free pizza and a round of drinks after it’s over, at which point pay will be dispersed in cash… I’m prepared to offer you a non speaking role for $60 plus bonus potential.”
Talking points offered to those with speaking roles included comparing New Orleans to a developing country and indicating the power plant might reduce crime. Actors were later paid for their efforts at a local Dave & Busters.
Officials for Entergy released a statement following the Lens’ report, saying the company played no role in hiring the actors.
“As we have stated previously, Entergy New Orleans did not pay anyone to attend the Council meetings or direct anyone to attend public meetings. Instead, we worked tirelessly to encourage our supporters to take time from their busy workday schedules to testify on behalf of this project. That scores of them did so in multiple settings is a testament to a tremendous level of support,” the statement read.
Entergy has argued the power plant is necessary to offset potential transmission failure across New Orleans. But the plant has been met with strong opposition from environmentalists, who worry it will exacerbate pollution in the Southern city.
Local residents have also questioned why pre-existing transmission lines operated by the company can’t be updated, something that would cost far less money. Activists and lawmakers are now concerned that paid actors may have played an outsized role in securing approval for the plant.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry, the lone dissenting vote against the power plant, called the prospect of paid actors “morally reprehensible”.
“I think it had a phenomenal impact on public opinion,” she said. It is unclear whether hiring the actors would constitute a violation of the law.
A coalition of organizations opposing the power plant, including the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and the Sierra Club, have said they plan to ask the New Orleans City Council and other officials to examine whether or not the actors were in fact paid and to take legal action if necessary. A separate lawsuit brought by the coalition in April also says the city council broke the law in failing to seriously consider alternatives to the plant.
Entergy has also come under fire for power outages across the city unrelated to the new power plant. Between June 1, 2016, and May 31, 2017, the company said it has experienced roughly 2,600 outages. Of those, 1,500 happened during fair weather conditions with minimal interference from rain and wind.
This piece has been corrected to reflect which council member voted against the power plant.