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Alabama Power long paid PR firm tied to fake crowd scandal

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Documents filed with federal regulators show a California public relations company that hired people to attend public hearings on a New Orleans power project was paid millions by Alabama Power Co. dating back to the 1990s. reports that The Hawthorn Group maintained an office inside Alabama Power’s corporate headquarters in Birmingham, but closed it about a year ago.

President and Chief Operating Officer Suzanne Hammelman has said that the people were hired in New Orleans by subcontractor Crowds on Demand and that payments to them were not authorized by Hawthorn or Entergy Corp.

Hammelman earlier characterized the actions as a “misunderstanding.” New Orleans-based Entergy was successfully seeking permission from city government there to build a power plant. New Orleans officials have said they’re investigating what happened.

Hawthorn chairman and co-founder John Ashford wrote in an email that the company has never recruited crowds to attend public meetings for Alabama Power, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Co.

“At no time has The Hawthorn Group ever engaged Crowds on Demand, nor any similar firm, on behalf of Alabama Power Co.,” Ashford wrote.

Alabama Power paid Hawthorn more than $7.8 million from 1996 to 2001, according to reports filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, about $1.3 million per year on average.

After 2001, Alabama Power was not required to itemize those expenses, or show which firms it was paying under this category, so any amounts it may have paid to Hawthorn since then are not recorded on the public forms.

In each year from 2010 to 2017, Alabama Power has spent between $18 and $23 million per year under the broad category of civic and political activity, which also includes work with civic groups.

After nonprofit news organization The Lens unearthed the arrangement, Entergy announced it was cutting ties with Hawthorn and Crowds on Demand, and that both companies were placed on a “do not hire” list.

Alabama Power did not directly respond to detailed questions about its relationship with Hawthorn or whether it would still hire the firm.

“Alabama Power’s mission is to provide our customers with the safe, reliable and affordable service they expect and deserve,” spokesman Michael Sznajderman wrote in response. “The company employs a number of individuals and organizations in support of that mission.

“Alabama Power requires all such individuals and organizations to conduct their activities in a highly ethical manner and in compliance with all legal requirements.”

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