Entergy New Orleans on Thursday released an internal investigation into its contract with the Hawthorn Group, a public relations firm the utility says paid actors through a subcontractor to support a proposed gas plant at a city council hearing.
Entergy said it hired the PR firm to identify 75 "legitimate supporters" of the proposed 128 MW peaker plant, but the contract "did not contemplate" whether those supporters would be paid. The company said it would amend its supplier rules to prohibit paid participation at meetings and told Utility Dive no ratepayer funds were used to pay Hawthorn.
Hawthorn has a history of work in power sector public comment processes, including submitting fake letters to Congressional lawmakers against a climate change bill. In 2016, the Edison Electric Institute paid the firm $3 million in 2016 for consulting services, the Energy and Policy Institute noted on Thursday.
Entergy's investigation adds more detail to the burgeoning public comment scandal in New Orleans, broke open by the investigative paper The Lens last week.
The paper revealed at least four actors were paid between $60 and $200 to attend a city council meeting in March about Entergy's proposed $210 million New Orleans Power Station.
New Orleans lawmakers said this week they will investigate the contract and may reconsider the 6-1 vote approving Entergy's plant.
The utility says Hawthorn hired a subcontractor, Crowds on Demand, which paid the participants without its knowledge.
"Based on our contract and their national reputation, Entergy fully expected that Hawthorn would identify legitimate supporters for the plant and encourage them to attend the meeting," the investigation said. "The contract with Hawthorn does not contemplate or authorize that any of these supporters would be paid for their attendance."
The utility also assured Utility Dive in a statement that customers were not footing the bill for the actors, saying they "have not paid for any of the costs that [Entergy New Orleans] paid to The Hawthorn Group nor will ENO ever seek to recover those costs from its customers."
Hawthorn appears to have built its "national reputation" on a history of work in the power sector.
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a coal trade group, paid the firm $10 million between 2008 and 2009 to fight the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation in Congress, E&E News reported, prompting a House committee investigation into ACCCE’s lobbying disclosures.
In 2009, Hawthorn and a subcontractor admitted they were behind fake letters sent to Congressional lawmakers against the climate bill, the Energy and Policy Institute, a liberal watchdog group, noted in a Thursday blog post.
Hawthorn’s other clients include EEI and an energy nonprofit funded predominantly by Michigan’s investor-owned utilities, the group reported. EEI in a statement said its 2016 contract with the firm was for a "wide-ranging public opinion research and analysis project."
"We were not involved in any of the activities in Louisiana and do not support these types of tactics," EEI spokesperson Brian Reil said in an email.
Hawthorn, for its part, said in a Friday statement it did not know any actors would be paid for their comments.
"Paying participants was not requested or authorized by our client or by Hawthorn," the company said. "Clearly, there was a misunderstanding, which we deeply regret."