A public relations firm, with a long history of using questionable tactics in its campaigns for energy industry clients, hired local actors to show support for a controversial natural gas power plant proposed by Entergy New Orleans LLC, according to an internal investigation conducted by the electric utility company.
Entergy entered into a contract with The Hawthorn Group L.C., a public relations firm based in Alexandria, Virginia, to assist with organizing local grassroots support for the New Orleans power plant. As part of its work for Entergy, the public relations firm hired people to attend New Orleans City Council meetings in recent months where they held signs and spoke during public comment periods in support of the company’s proposed power plant.
In a report released Thursday, Entergy asserted that “no one at Entergy paid anyone to attend or speak at any council meeting, nor did anyone at Entergy direct or authorize any contractor or subcontractor to pay anyone to attend or speak at the October or February council meetings or any other meeting related to NOPS [New Orleans Power Station].”
Rather, the actions of the Hawthorn Group, which subcontracted out work to Crowds on Demand, were taken “without Entergy’s knowledge or approval,” the company said. As a result of Hawthorn’s actions, Entergy said it has ended its contractual relationship with the public relations firm.
In a statement provided to ThinkProgress, the Hawthorn Group said Friday that “paying participants was not requested or authorized by our client or by Hawthorn. Clearly, there was a misunderstanding, which we deeply regret.” The firm declined further comment or to say who it believes approved the payments to participants at the public meetings.
The Hawthorn Group has a history of using “astroturf” operations in attempts to manufacture the appearance of popular support for a utility company’s position where none exists, according to the Energy & Policy Institute, a utility watchdog organization.
The Energy & Policy Institute, for example, found that the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the nation’s leading investor-owned utility trade association, paid the Hawthorn Group $3 million in 2016 for “consulting” services.
The Hawthorn Group “conducted a wide-ranging public opinion research and analysis project for EEI” in 2016, Brian Reil, a spokesperson for the utility trade group, said in an email to ThinkProgress. “We were not involved in any of the activities in Louisiana and do not support these types of tactics,” he added.
Paying real people to attend meetings, protests, and campaign events or appear in advertisements remains a go-to practice for energy companies. Known as astroturfing, this is the longtime corporate practice of funding initiatives that mimic grassroots support for an issue.
In 2009, the Hawthorn Group used a subcontractor, Bonner & Associates, that allegedly ended up forging letters from minority groups as part of a lobbying effort against legislation legislative efforts in Congress to cap carbon dioxide emissions.
This campaign to develop opposition to congressional climate bills was financed by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an alliance of electric utilities, coal, and railroad companies. The industry coalition and the Hawthorn Group later acknowledged to lawmakers that they were behind the forged letters.
“Entergy specifically chose the Hawthorn Group because of their reputation and this public relations firm has a history of misconduct. Entergy took the risk to capitalize on the reward of manufacturing support in front of local officials for their gas plant,” Matt Kasper, research director at the Energy & Policy Institute, said Friday in an email statement to ThinkProgress. “Any company that continues to work with the Hawthorn Group or build ‘astroturf’ campaigns should be called out.”
— Matt Kasper (@Matt_Kasper) May 11, 2018
After holding public meetings on the power plant, the New Orleans City Council, which has jurisdiction over utility matters in the city, voted 6-1 on March 8 to approve construction of the 128-megawatt power plant.
It’s unclear whether the city council will overturn its approval and reopen its review of the power plant in light of the new information. New Orleans City Council President Jason Williams and Vice President Helena Moreno issued a joint statement on Thursday, saying “the allegations and subsequent confirmation of astroturfing during the New Orleans City Council’s consideration of the proposal to construct a New Orleans Power Station fly in the face of the dignity, courtesy, and respect of traditional public discourse vital to our democratic process.”
Entergy’s findings “warrant a fully independent review by the Council or by a third party investigator hired by the Council to transparently vet the facts of this matter,” the council members said.
In its report, Entergy conceded that in anticipation of planned public meetings last fall, it retained the Hawthorn Group, to assist in developing grassroots support for the proposed plant, including mobilizing supporters to attend and to speak at an October 16 city council meeting.
“The contract specified that Hawthorn would turn out 75 supporters, 10 of whom would speak at the meeting. The supporters were to prepare their own handmade signs, but would be provided with branded t-shirts,” Entergy said.
While Entergy admits it wanted Hawthorn to drum up support, the company said the contract with the Hawthorn Group “does not contemplate or authorize that any of these supporters would be paid for their attendance.”
Aside from actors who were paid to show up and speak at the meetings, at least nine of the organizations that testified at the New Orleans City Council’s hearing on the natural gas plant on Entergy’s behalf on October 16, 2017 have received charitable donations from the Entergy Charitable Foundation, according to the Energy & Policy Institute.
At the hearing, Howard Rodgers, executive director of the New Orleans Council on Aging, for example, spoke on Entergy’s behalf, saying “gas is an energy that we use that does not have any kind of additional effects,” the report said. Last year, Rodgers’ organization received $300,000 from Entergy New Orleans to administer the utility’s “Power to Care” program.
Entergy and Rodgers had not responded to requests for comment from ThinkProgress about the Energy & Policy Institute report by time of publishing.
This article was updated at 10:20 a.m. ET on May 14, 2018 to include a statement from a spokesperson for the Edison Electric Institute.