Company pays hearing attendees, says it seeks sincere people

The CEO of a California public relations company that hired people to attend and speak at public hearings on a New Orleans power project says his firm strives to make sure the people it pays to attend such meetings are sincere in the opinions they express.

Adam Swart is the founder of Crowds on Demand, which paid people to attend and speak at hearings in support of a power plant in New Orleans. The utility giant Entergy said Thursday it had not known the company was paying supporters until it conducted an investigation into claims that actors were among the backers at public hearings. It said Crowds on Demand was hired without authorization by The Hawthorn Group, a Virginia-based firm that did work for Entergy.

A spokeswoman for The Hawthorn group said Friday that neither her company nor Entergy authorized the payments to supporters.

"Paying participants was not requested or authorized by our client or by Hawthorn. Clearly, there was a misunderstanding which we deeply regret," Suzanne Hammelman said, reading a prepared statement Friday morning. Hammelman declined to answer questions.

Swart declined to comment and wouldn't answer questions on the Entergy case specifically, including whether professional actors were paid to attend public hearings in support of the power plant.

"In every case that we do, the people support the point of view that they're speaking on," Swart said.

"The only qualifying statement: We're going, just like a poll is going, off their word. I cannot say that for 100 percent certainty that no one lied to us," Swart said.

The paid supporters attended, and in some cases spoke, during public meetings in October and February. The council approved the plant, which was opposed by some residents and environmental groups, in March.

City Council president Jason Williams and vice president Helena Moreno issued a statement Thursday saying the council plans a probe, either by council staff or a hired third party.

"While we acknowledge Entergy's efforts to swiftly investigate the matter and produce a report of its findings, as regulators, the City Council owes a fiduciary obligation to the citizens of New Orleans that we must honor," their joint statement said.

Council members have stopped short of saying they will reconsider approving the project, which is opposed by some residents and environmental groups.

Opponents have filed a state court lawsuit saying the vote was taken after the council violated Louisiana's Open Meetings Law.

Plant opponents also complain that some nonprofit groups that expressed support for the plant received charitable donations through an Entergy foundation.

"The assertion that Entergy and its employees would support charitable organizations for any reason other than the causes these organizations serve is offensive and unfair to the people who dedicate themselves to helping their communities," the utility said in an emailed statement Friday.