Court Battle Involving the Paid Actors Scandal
by Orissa Arend
If you haven’t been paying close attention lately to the City Council’s position on Entergy’s proposed gas plant in New Orleans East, you probably aren’t aware of an appalling bait and switch.
Entergy’s deceptive use of paid actors in 2018 to fill up a meeting room and address the Council from scripts as though they were residents shocked most of us when several actors exposed the scheme. Michael Isaac Stein wrote a bombshell report for the Lens called “Actors were paid to support power plant at New Orleans City Council meeting.” (May 10, 2018)
You might have been reassured when on May 24, 2018 the newly inaugurated City Council hired the Sher Garner law firm to investigate the scheme. You might have been further reassured on January 23, 2019 when Councilmembers Moreno, Williams, and Brossette introduced resolutions to repeal and rescind the approval of the Entergy gas plant saying that the use of paid actors was “nefarious” and that it “compromised” the public process. The investigation had revealed that Entergy’s actions limited residents opposed to the gas plant from being seated and heard at Council meetings.
On July 2, 2019 Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin issued a final judgment that voids the Council’s approval of the gas plant for violation of the Open Meetings Law. Whew! So far so good!
But Entergy seems to have a way of twisting everything around to get what it wants – in this case the gas plant. Even our City Council!? You might ask. Yes indeed.
The Council’s same law firm, Sher Garner, that conducted the damning investigation is representing the Council as it JOINS with Entergy to appeal Judge Griffin’s ruling. And guess who’s footing the bill. Entergy.
According to the appeal filed by the Sher Garner team for the Council: “It is not the duty of government to establish acceptable grounds for citizens to attend public meetings and speak on matters of public consequence.” Their appeal claims that the Council is exempt from complying with the Open Meetings Law. SAY WHAT!?
“This is worse than fake news. This is fake democracy.” said Bill Quigley, pro bono counsel from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. “The City Council, after publicly excoriating Entergy for flagrantly corrupting the democratic process by using dozens of paid actors to lie and displace actually impacted citizens from hearings, now joins Entergy asking the Court of Appeals to endorse the same process. Their position is such an absurd distortion of the open meetings law, maybe the Council and Entergy should pay actors to dress up and sit as judges to justify their illegal actions.”
“This is an unholy union between the Council and Entergy to attack the right of residents to participate in the Council meetings,” said Reverend Gregory Manning of Justice and Beyond, one of the plaintiffs in the Dec. 2, 2019 brief filed to defend the right to open meetings. The brief seeks to affirm the District Court judgment. Other plaintiffs are the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, VAYLA New Orleans (A Vietnamese American local group), 350 New Orleans, the Sierra Club, Mr. Theodore Quant and Ms. Renate Heurich. A hearing for oral arguments is scheduled in the Fourth Circuit Court of appeals for Jan. 6, 2020.
Well, I know the news keeps throwing us stuff that begs for our attention, and the paid actor scandal seems like eons ago. But let’s not get so distracted that we desert our sisters and brothers in New Orleans East as their democratic rights get trampled on. In fact, this injustice is an alarm bell for the city. New Orleans citizens could be saddled with a brand new but still polluting plant that they will be paying for – as much as $960 million — for the next 30 years. On top of that, unless the District Court judgment is affirmed, New Orleans citizens would have no guarantee that they would be heard at future Council meetings. Our City Council, whose job it is to regulate Entergy – I can’t think of any other way to say it – seems to have sold out.