Update at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, May 10:
A New Orleans energy company now acknowledges that it provided funds that were used to pay "supporters" at public meetings about a proposed power plant, but says the company didn't know the funds were being used for that purpose.
Entergy, which operates in four states, says in a statement that Entergy New Orleans contracted with a public affairs firm, The Hawthorn Group, to "assist with organizing local grassroots support." Those contracts specified that Hawthorn would "turn out 75 supporters" to one meeting, and "recruit 30 supporters" for another.
The company did not expect that those supporters would be paid, Entergy maintains. But Hawthorn worked with a subcontractor, Crowds on Demand, that paid actors directly to pretend to support the power plant. The power plant was then approved by the New Orleans City Council.
Entergy told NPR that it does not normally pay firms to turn out supporters. "However, in this case we contracted with a firm that we believed would act ethically and honestly in that effort, based on their national reputation and our prior experience with them," a spokeswoman said.
You can read more in the latest update from The Lens.
Original story, updated at 6:08 p.m. on Sunday:
Multiple actors were paid to appear at City Hall meetings in New Orleans and express support for a proposed gas-powered power plant, an investigative news site reports, citing interviews with actors and messages with organizers.
The New Orleans City Council approved the new Entergy power plant in March. Allegations have been swirling for weeks that some of the seeming supporters of the plant were actually paid actors, but now The Lens has published evidence. The site notes that the practice "appears to be legal."
Entergy New Orleans denies the claims. "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," Entergy said in a statement on Sunday to NPR. "Entergy did not pay, nor did we authorize any other person or entity to pay supporters to attend or speak at council meetings."
The company continued that it is in the process of investigating "to determine if anyone retained by the company has acted in any way inconsistent" with Entergy's values, adding, "We will take swift and appropriate action if warranted."
You can read the full story on The Lens' website.
Long before the allegations surfaced, The Lens noted the striking number of bright orange T-shirts — celebrating clean energy, good jobs and reliable power — worn at a meeting in October to invite public comments on the proposal.
At that meeting, The Lens reported at the time, the president and CEO of Entergy New Orleans chuckled and said, "I think we've got them outnumbered."
Then, in early March, actor Andrew Wiseman spoke out publicly to say he was paid to sit in a meeting wearing one of those orange shirts.
Inspired by that disclosure, a lawyer compared speakers at the City Hall meetings with professional actor profiles and identified three other apparent actors in the audience. But he did not offer any evidence that those actors were paid to speak at the meeting.
A coalition of environmental advocacy groups then sued to reverse the approval of the plant for a variety of reasons. One of their suits alleges that opponents of the plant were turned away from public meetings because of a lack of space, while supporters — possibly including paid supporters — were allowed to enter early.
Entergy told local news station WWLTV that "seats were available on a first-come, first-served" basis and that it "did not pay anyone to attend."
Now The Lens, a nonprofit news organization, has published new evidence suggesting a campaign to recruit, organize and pay people, including people from outside of New Orleans, to express support for the power plant.
One actor, in addition to Andrew Wiseman, was willing to go on the record.
"They paid us to sit through the meeting and clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power," Keith Keough told The Lens, saying he was not political and just needed the money.
Two more actors spoke to The Lens anonymously. The site also obtained screenshots of messages exchanged with a man who was apparently organizing the effort.
Those messages, which are displayed in the Lens' story, described when and where to appear, offered recruitment bonuses for finding more people for the event, provided talking points and full speeches to deliver, and referenced nondisclosure agreements.
The Lens reports that participants were paid $60 for showing up and wearing a shirt, and $200 for delivering a speech in support of the plant.
The news outlet also said that in one message, the organizer referenced "Crowds on Demand." In 2016, Davy Rothbart wrote about that company, which supplies fake crowds for events, for The California Report.
He spoke to NPR about his experience going undercover to get jobs with them, describing the company's strategy as savvy and smart.
"I think it's effective, but I also think it's a little gross," he said.
Rothbart said that during his time with Crowds on Demand, nobody really seemed to be worried about being discovered as a paid protester.
"I don't think it crosses anybody's mind," he said. "It's just still kind of a secretive line of work, and I think most people aren't that clued into the possibility of hired crowd members."
But the messages acquired by The Lens show a preoccupation with not getting caught. In one missive, the organizer listed "a few things to keep in mind":
1) Tell nobody you're being paid
2) Tell nobody you're being paid
3) Media will be present, do not talk to them
4) Tell nobody you're being paid
5) If someone approaches you, don't tell them you're being paid.
The alleged organizer who sent that message did not respond to The Lens' request for comment. Another alleged organizer told the news site he helps run "grassroots organizations and campaigns," but did not respond to further inquiries.
Crowds on Demand has not yet responded to NPR's request for comment.
It's not clear who paid for the effort — or how many people were paid and how many were legitimate supporters.
But in March, at a meeting where there are no allegations of paid supporters, the room was "dominated by opponents," The Lens writes.