New Orleans Pressured To Reconsider Permit For Power Plant Backed By Paid Actors

May 12, 2018
Originally published on May 12, 2018 5:10 pm
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LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

In New Orleans, a contentious debate over a proposed power plant was not what it seemed. It came out this past week that the company building the gas plant paid actors to attend city council meetings. Now some are calling on the council to reconsider its overwhelming approval of the project.

Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO has our story.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: The New Orleans City Council held several heated public meetings before approving the plant proposed by Entergy New Orleans Corp., a regulated monopoly that operates the city's electric grid. This spring, they heard from people like Johnny Rock.

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JOHNNY ROCK: I decided to stay and help fight and bring the city back to a thriving city. I am for the power plant. I believe it'll improve the economy, create jobs.

WENDLAND: It turns out Rock, who's been in movies with Jim Carrey and Jack Black, was paid $200 to read that script. He's just one of about 100 people paid to support the new power plant at public meetings. That's according to an investigation by The Lens, a local nonprofit news organization.

SYLVIA SCINEAUX RICHARD: Oh, I was floored. I was floored.

WENDLAND: Sylvia Scineaux Richard is the president of a New Orleans East neighborhood association and has lived here for more than 30 years, just a few miles from where the new plant is to be built. She was at the meetings to speak against the plant and saw some of the actors but had no idea they were getting paid.

RICHARD: I could not believe. I just - I couldn't imagine that someone would go to that extent to sway opinion.

WENDLAND: The meetings were so packed with apparent supporters that many opponents couldn't even get in the room. And that's a problem, says Monique Harden, a lawyer for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. The group is suing the city over the plant, which is slated for a neighborhood that's largely African-American and Vietnamese.

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MONIQUE HARDEN: We had huge concerns with the gas plant application because it would continue the pattern of environmental racism and injustice in Louisiana, and it would release pollution that is scientifically known to cause premature deaths, cancers, respiratory damage.

WENDLAND: The opposition at city council meetings was overshadowed by the support, much of which was artificial. That's troubling for council president Jason Williams, and his concerns extend beyond this one debate.

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JASON WILLIAMS: This could have happened before. It's certainly very possible that people are going to try to do it again.

WENDLAND: He wants new rules to at least identify paid speakers at public meetings. But some First Amendment advocates worry that attempts to prevent this kind of deception could unintentionally create barriers for true public comment. Entergy declined an interview request. In a statement, it says it hired a PR firm, which in turn hired Crowds on Demand, a Los Angeles-based company that provides just that. Entergy says it didn't know they hired the actors and has severed ties with the groups. But council member Williams worries about the broader implications.

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WILLIAMS: Are we living at a time when corporate America has figured out a way to co-opt grass-roots organizing, which is something that this country has been founded on?

WENDLAND: Scineaux Richard drives down a gravel road to where Entergy plans to build the new power plant. Behind a big fence, workers are driving heavy equipment around, leveling the dirt lot.

RICHARD: I guess they're working a clearing the ground for the new plant. It's heartbreaking.

WENDLAND: Even as city council and the public try to make sense of what just happened, the company appears full steam ahead on the new plant.

For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.