Deception from the top: Investigation slams Entergy for paid actors

NEW ORLEANS -  The deception started at the top.

That's the ultimate takeaway from an independent investigation into Entergy New Orleans' role in paying actors to try to sway the New Orleans City Council's vote on a new power station.

The report released Monday (Oct. 29) reveals internal "documents, e-mails, text messages and other information" uncovered by the local law firm of Sher, Garner, Cahill, Richter, Klein & Hilbert, L.L.C., working in cooperation with retired Criminal Court District Judge Calvin Johnson.

The City Council voted in favor of the new power station in March, but called for the investigation into Entergy's actions in May after news media reported that actors had been paid to express support for the power station at several public hearings.

"THIS IS WAR"

The 62-page report on the investigation outlines why Entergy executives decided to drum up false support for the power station, and how Entergy paid actors to do it.

The report quotes multiple text messages between then-Entergy New Orleans' CEO Charles Rice and Entergy's Manager of Communications Yolanda Pollard.

According to the report, Rice was worried about an "alliance" of opposition, and in one text, he asks Pollard how many actors an Entergy contractor, Hawthorn Group,  has arranged to appear at a City Council hearing.

Pollard replies: "They've committed to securing 50 people and ten speakers."   The charge to Entergy would be $6,500.

Rice texts Pollard: "Hell, I would pay for more if they can get them," and later: "Don't care if (it's an extra) 25k. This is war and we need all the foot (soldiers) we can muster."

Pollard responds: "Hawthorn now securing 75 attendees and 10 speakers all wearing t-shirts with supporting NOPS messaging.  Cost went from 23 to 29K."

The report found that Rice was pleased with what Entergy got for $29,000.  After one public hearing in which the actors outnumbered ordinary citizens, Rice texted Pollard: "Looks fabulous," and  "Hawthorn came through let's figure out how we can further engage."

THE STRATEGY UNRAVELS

In fact, paying more actors to show up at another Council hearing may have been the scheme's undoing.  Opponents of the power station, and reporters, began wondering who the supporters in the orange t-shirts represented.  And as the report points out, the actors tended to use the same talking points when they spoke at the public hearings, using phrases like "brain-eating amoeba" and "cascading outages."

The report lists more than a dozen Entergy New Orleans executives, including Rice and Pollard, who "knew, or should have known" what was going on.  But the report also notes that getting some information was blocked by some executives who refused to turn over certain items, "claiming that these items were somehow protected from disclosure by a claim of privilege."

In the end, the report is likely to be damning.  Although there's no mention of criminal or civil penalties, the investigation found that Entergy New Orleans appears to have violated some city ordinances.

But beyond that, Entergy's continuing denials of the scheme could cost the company its reputation- and possibly its new power station.  The City Council will hold a special meeting on Wednesday to review the report, and eventually might decide to reverse its decision to give the power station the go-ahead.

"Simply stated," says the report, Entergy "lost its way. It found itself so far in (that) it could not recognize its mistake and take corrective measures (as) its Values and Ethics statement demands."