Entergy Corp., the parent company of the state's largest electric utility, Entergy Arkansas, is denying that it paid actors to pack public meetings in New Orleans to support plans for a new power plant.
In a statement issued over the weekend, the company added that it did not authorize others to pay supporters to attend or speak out at city council meetings last year. However, it said it is investigating to "determine if anyone retained by the company has acted in any way inconsistent" with company values of honesty and integrity.
The Lens of New Orleans reported last week that people, including professional actors, were paid to don orange T-shirts reading "Clean Energy, Good Jobs, Reliable Power" at public hearings on Entergy's bid to construct a $210 million generation facility on the east side of New Orleans, where the company is based.
The report said at least four people photographed in the crowed were professional actors, and that some were paid $200 for a "speaking role." One actor in the article, Keith Keough, told The Lens that paid supporters were told to "clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power." He added that participants were asked not to tell anyone they were being paid and were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements. The document's language included five things to "keep in mind." Four of the five were reminders to participants to tell no one they were being paid.
The Lens article said that two men apparently from out of town, Garrett Wilkerson and Daniel Taylor, organized the show of support for the power plant, which the New Orleans City Council approved last month in a 6-1 vote. The entity that hired them couldn't be immediately confirmed, though Councilwoman Susan Guidry, the only city Utility Committee member to vote against the facility, said she suspected Entergy.
Kerri Jackson Case, an Entergy senior communications specialist in Little Rock, directed Arkansas Business to the Entergy Corp. statement, dated May 6: "The recent allegations that some supporters of the New Orleans Power Station may have been paid to attend or speak at certain public meetings are troubling and run counter to the values of our Company. While we reiterate that Entergy did not pay, nor did we authorize any other person or entity to pay supporters to attend or speak at Council meetings, we recognize that our interactions with our stakeholders must always be based on honesty and integrity. To that end, we are in the process of finalizing our investigation to determine if anyone retained by the company has acted in any way inconsistent with these values. We will take swift and appropriate action if warranted."
The practice of paying people to express views seemingly from the grass-roots level is known in political circles as "astroturfing," and the tactic has been used in some forms for decades. But ethical leaders in business and politics have criticized the practice as deceitful to the public. Organizations often gather people to advocate at public meetings, offering rides and sometimes refreshments. It is far more uncommon, as The Lens noted, for people to be paid to push agendas they have little interest in.
Wilkerson, the suspected organizer, has been linked to a Los Angeles company, Crowds on Demand, which promises on its website to "provide our clients with protests, rallies, flash-mobs, paparazzi events and other inventive PR stunts."
The company did not respond to requests for comment.
Opponents of the plant are asking the Louisiana attorney general's office to investigate, along with the Orleans Parish district attorney's office and the City Council itself, to determined if any laws were broken.