Political connections, contributions helped utility consultants keep lucrative contracts for decades, former council members say By Michael Isaac Stein
Originally published in The Lens, by Michael Isaac Stein
March 28, 2019
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In 1985, New Orleans residents decided that New Orleans Public Service Inc. — now called Entergy New Orleans — should be regulated by the City Council rather than the state’s Public Service Commission, which had overseen the utility for the three previous years. Ever since, the council has relied almost entirely on a group of outside consultants to fulfill that authority.
Council members have come and gone over the past 30 years, but that group of consultants has remained remarkably consistent. The council’s primary legal adviser — Washington D.C. attorney Clinton Vince of the law firm Dentons — has advised council members on utility matters since 1983. So had the lead technical adviser, Joseph Vumbaco, until he passed away in 2018. His Denver-based firm, Legend Consulting Group, still holds the contract. Walter Wilkerson served as the Council’s local legal consultant from 1987 until he also passed away in 2018. Wilkerson’s firm still has the contract.
Those contracts are far and away the most lucrative awarded by the council, adding up to nearly $7 million a year. Most of those costs are paid by Entergy, but they’re ultimately passed on to ratepayers through their utility bills. Some observers question how such a prized gig could remain locked down by the same people and firms for so long.
“No one has a government contract for life,” said Monique Harden of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “These advisers have somehow managed a way to do that. And I believe it’s fueled by the way in which they give to political organizations and people running for office.”
Harden is representing a coalition of environmental and consumer advocacy groups in a lawsuit against the City Council over its decision last year to approve Entergy’s $210 million power plant in eastern New Orleans. The suit focuses on the prominent role the advisers played in the application process, with the plaintiffs arguing that the firms played conflicting roles as both advocates for the plant and fact-finders for the City Council. On Tuesday, Harden laid out those arguments for Civil District Court Judge Piper D. Griffin, who did not immediately issue a ruling.
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