NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Some of the people who showed up at public hearings to express enthusiastic backing for a new power plant in New Orleans were phonies hired by a private firm for anywhere from $50 to $200 to bolster support, a major utility company acknowledged Thursday.
Entergy stressed in a Thursday news release that it did not authorize such payments and had no knowledge of them until it investigated allegations that paid actors were among supporters at public meetings in October and February.
"These kinds of activities run directly counter to the way we conduct our business," Entergy General Counsel Marcus Brown said in the news release. "And we apologize to the Council, the community, and to the many supporters of the New Orleans Power Station project who took their own time to attend those public hearings and express their support for this important project."
The City Council voted 6-1 to approve the new power station in March. The project was opposed by some residents and environmentalists. And a lawsuit was filed April 19 saying the council violated the state open meetings law by shutting out some plant opponents and changing the meeting agenda without advance notice. That suit included allegations that paid actors showed up in support of the plant, allegations backed up by reports in local media.
Entergy said many of the supporters of the planned New Orleans Power Station who packed City Council chambers were, indeed, sincere. They were recruited by Entergy personnel, the report said.
But the company alleges that The Hawthorn Group, a public relations firm it hired to round up supporters of the plant for public hearings paid a subcontractor, Crowds on Demand, for help.
"We now know, as a result of our investigation, that Crowds on Demand did in fact compensate most, if not all, of the other individuals it recruited to appear at the meeting," the report said.
Neither The Hawthorn Group nor Crowds on Demand — which identifies itself on its website as "Your home for protests, rallies, advocacy, audiences, PR stunts and political events" — immediately returned telephoned requests for comment Thursday afternoon.
It's not clear exactly how many people were paid by Crowds on Demand. Entergy didn't say whether it confirmed that any of them were professional actors. The report said Hawthorn was hired to turn out 75 supporters for the Oct. 16 public meeting, including 10 who would speak.
At the February meeting, Hawthorn was to recruit 30 supporters, including 10 speakers.
"As at the October meeting, many genuine supporters attended; however, we now know that Crowds on Demand also recruited and compensated people to attend this meeting," the report said.