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    Paid to Protest: US Energy Company Buys Grassroots Support for Power Plant

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    An investigation has revealed that actors were hired to pretend support for a controversial gas-fired energy plant for Entergy in New Orleans East, which was approved in March.

    Entergy hired the Virginia-based Hawthorn Group, a privately-owned public relations firm, and has stuck to its claims that it didn't know that vocal supporters at two meetings advocating the power plant's construction had been hired and paid for their attendance and speaking performances. 

    New Orleans City Council President Jason Williams said that "there is a consensus that we have an obligation to conduct an aggressive, short-timeline, thorough investigation of everything that took place with regards to these paid actors — what we now know as astroturfing," the Lens reported.

    The investigation revealed that The Hawthorn Group was behind the astroturfing and had hired California-based Crowds on Demand, which in turn hired the actors to show up at public hearings in October 2017, and February 2018.

    Entergy spokespeople have claimed that the company was unaware of a subcontract with Crowds on Demand, and only knew of its relationship with Hawthorn.

    In a Thursday report, Entergy — by way of avoiding responsibility for the decisions of its own contractor — said that "no one at Entergy paid anyone to attend or speak at any council meeting, nor did anyone at Entergy direct or authorize any contractor or subcontractor to pay anyone to attend or speak at the October or February council meetings or any other meeting related to NOPS [New Orleans Power Station]," ThinkProgress reported.

    US energy policy observers were quick to point out that Entergy's excuse was insufficient, insisting that the power company should be held responsible for the decisions of its contractors. 

    "Entergy specifically chose the Hawthorn Group because of their reputation and this public relations firm has a history of misconduct," noted Matt Kasper, research director at the Energy & Policy Institute, in a Friday email to ThinkProgress.

    "Entergy took the risk to capitalize on the reward of manufacturing support in front of local officials for their gas plant," Kasper pointed out, adding, "Any company that continues to work with the Hawthorn Group or build ‘astroturf' campaigns should be called out."

    The Hawthorn Group has previously been involved in astroturfing scandals, including a 2009 job for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity attempting to convince Congress to oppose climate-change regulations. Reports revealed that a Hawthorn subcontractor sent letters falsely credited to groups representing African-American interests, Latinos and other ethnic groups.

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