An Entergy internal investigation revealed today that the utility company contracted with the Hawthorn Group, a Virginia-based PR firm, in its effort to create the appearance of public support at New Orleans City Council hearings for its proposed natural gas plant.
Hawthorn, Entergy acknowledged in its report, had subcontracted with a company called Crowds on Demand to pay actors to appear and speak at City Council hearings wearing t-shirts supporting the gas plant. Actors were paid $60 to appear, and $200 for “speaking roles,” as first reported by The Lens, a local newspaper.
Entergy denied any prior knowledge of Hawthorn’s activities in its report, claiming that Hawthorn had lied to Entergy about the paid actors when a reporter’s inquiry first prompted Entergy to ask Hawthorn about the topic.
The utility further defended its contracting of Hawthorn in the fall of 2017 by saying that “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.”
But a simple Google search would have shown Entergy that Hawthorn’s “national reputation” is a long and sordid one, rife with fraudulent antics: Hawthorn has been caught on multiple occasions deceiving public officials with “astroturf” operations designed to manufacture the appearance of popular support for a utility company’s position where none exists. One of Hawthorn’s more infamous episodes of astroturfing is literally included as the case study in a public relations textbook of what not to do.
Hawthorn Group has long history of deception on utilities’ behalf
In the incident that provided the textbook case study, Hawthorn made headlines in 2009 when it was revealed that its subcontractor, Bonner & Associations, forged letters from minority groups and sent them to lawmakers as part of a ferocious lobbying effort against legislation intended to cap carbon pollution. Hawthorn’s work to drum up fake support against the climate bill was financed by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) – an alliance of electric utilities, coal, and railroad companies. ACCCE and the Hawthorn Group later acknowledged to lawmakers that they were behind the forged letters, though they waited until after the House had voted on the bill before admitting their involvement.
ACCCE paid the Hawthorn Group at least $10 million between 2008 and 2009, according to the New York Times. Hawthorn’s own newsletter from 2008, obtained by DeSmog Blog, details that the firm was specifically hired by the utility and coal group to create and manage a fake grassroots campaign. The firm boosts how they “nearly turned candidate events into clean coal rallies.” ACCCE continued to pay Hawthorn millions of dollars for consulting work in 2010, 2011 and 2012, according to organization’s 990s.
Despite the scandal over the forged letters, utility money has continued to flow into the Hawthorn Group.
In 2012, the Hawthorn Group was hired by a political action campaign predominantly funded by Michigan’s investor-owned utilities to sway voters away from increasing the state’s renewable energy standard. The Clean Affordable Renewable Energy for Michigan Coalition (CARE), received over a combined $23 million from DTE Energy and Consumers Energy. The committee’s treasurer was even DTE’s then-chief accounting officer. CARE then used some of that money to hire the Hawthorn Group for consulting work. The Hawthorn Group’s website boasts of its work to defeat the 2012 clean energy ballot initiative, bragging that it “revers[ed] the strong support for the proposal at the beginning of the campaign.”
In June 2017, Hawthorn hired Steven Cohen to be its vice president. Cohen most recently served as a consultant to DDC Advocacy and The Advocacy Group on energy issues. Hawthorn’s hiring of Cohen occurred just months after DDC Advocacy was outed for working with the American Gas Association to create a fake grassroots organization, titled Your Energy America, to undermine environmental advocacy campaigns against new natural gas pipelines and infrastructure. Another Hawthorn senior vice president, W. John Moore, runs another front group for electric utilities called the Electric Markets Research Foundation, which issues white papers supporting utilities’ positions against rooftop solar power or in favor of coal plants.
Not just Entergy: Hawthorn Group is one of the Edison Electric Institute’s biggest contractors
The Edison Electric Institute, the investor-owned utility trade association, paid the Hawthorn Group $3 million in 2016 for “consulting” services, according to EEI’s latest publicly available tax documents. That made Hawthorn its highest paid contractor after Hunton & Williams, the law firm that handles much of the utility industry’s litigation against clean air and water protections. It is unclear what consulting work Hawthorn has done for the utility industry’s trade association.
John Ashford, Hawthorn’s chairman, speaks regularly at utility industry conferences. Last month, he was a speaker at the utility industry’s Current Issues Conference at New Mexico State University, and last year he was a panelist at a National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) conference. (EEI often dictates some of the agendas and speakers at NARUC and other utility commissioners’ events.)
Entergy says it has ended its contractual relationship with the Hawthorn Group. The City Council ultimately approved Entergy’s natural gas plant by a 6-1 vote, a result which Entergy claimed in its report was not affected by any of the paid actors provided by Hawthorn’s subcontractor. Entergy says the result should stand.