Hawthorn Group

The Hawthorn Group is a public affairs and corporate communications firm that has frequently worked with utilities and been central to a number of scandals involving the industry. 

Hawthorn describes its work as “anchored” in “heavily regulated industries, particularly the public utilities space.” The company says it specializes in “strategic communications,” “crisis response”, and “grassroots/grasstops engagement”.

From 2009 through 2023, Hawthorn has been involved in campaigns to forge letters from organizations to lawmakers, pay actors to support a utility’s fossil fuel plant, and to manufacture an astroturf group that served as the front for another utility to block a clean energy-related transmission line.

Hawthorn employees collectively have decades of employment history with utilities including NextEra, Duke Energy, and TVA.

Hawthorn lists an Alexandria, Virginia address on its website; however, it maintained an office inside of Alabama Power’s headquarters in Birmingham until as late as 2017, the group’s President and Chief Operating Officer told AL.com in May 2018. 

Hawthorn’s History of Scandal

Forged Letters for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (now America’s Power)

In 2009, a Hawthorn subcontractor, Bonner & Associates, forged letters, pretending to be members of minority organizations like the NAACP, and feigning opposition to climate legislation that was moving in the House of Representatives. Hawthorn worked on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), which is now known as America’s Power and still attacks clean energy to advocate “on behalf of the U.S. coal fleet.”

U.S Senator Ed Markey told Bonner & Associates in a letter, “This fraud on Congress distorts the legislative process and disserves the American people.” America’s Power claimed they were “outraged” by the conduct of the subcontractor. The Sierra Club ran an ad in response to the scandal that said, “When Dirty-Energy Washington Lobbyists couldn’t get any real-life supporters to defeat comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation, they made them up instead.”

The scandal was featured in a public relations textbook which asked readers to discuss the ethics of the situation and who should bear ultimate responsibility.

The Hawthorn Group received almost $10 million in contractual fees from ACCCE between 2008 and 2012, according to research by the Climate Investigations Center.  America’s Power stopped reporting payments to Hawthorn Group on its annual tax reports after 2012.

Ashford was later asked in a 2019 interview if it was fair to say Hawthorn’s work to promote the misnomer clean coal “normalized the idea that coal has a role as a solution to climate change” and helped delay legitimate climate action for the benefit of his client and to the detriment of the rest of the world.

“I don’t know how to measure fairness, but I’d say it’s accurate,” Ashford responded. “I hope all our campaigns are designed to benefit our clients’ interests.” 

The utility company Southern Company, which operated the notorious failed  Kemper “clean coal” power plant project, paid $19 million to the Hawthorn Group between 1996 and 2004, according to annual SEC reports from that time period. 

Entergy’s Paid Actor Scandal

In 2018, Hawthorn was once again caught manufacturing fake grassroots support. Hawthorn hired a subcontractor called Crowds on Demand, which paid actors to attend a New Orleans’ City Council meeting to manufacture the false appearance of community support of Entergy New Orleans’ plans to build a new methane gas power plant. 

The hired actors showed up at the hearing and represented themselves as local, concerned citizens that supported the proposed plant, some holding signs that said “Power Station = JOBS!!!!” and “Jobs Giving Community = Entergy.” The Entergy gas plant was approved by the city council in a 6-1 a decision that Entergy argued should stand, even after the paid actors scandal was revealed.

Picture 1. Crowds on Demand actors at a New Orleans city council hearing. Photo from The Lens.

Investigators for New Orleans said Entergy “knew or should have known” about what Hawthorn was doing on behalf of the utility, while Entergy’s internal investigation blamed Hawthorn for the astroturfing. Entergy was fined $5 million by the New Orleans City Council for the scandal. 

In December 2018, Entergy filed a lawsuit against Hawthorn alleging a breach of contract and Hawthorn agreed to pay Entergy $1 million.

Following the paid actor scandal in New Orleans, AL.com reported that 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. Hawthorn maintained it had never recruited crowds to attend public meetings for Alabama Power.

Blocking a Clean Energy Transmission Line for NextEra Energy

In 2023, Hawthorn was hired by NextEra Energy to lead a campaign in order to influence public opinion and block the construction of a transmission line carrying Canadian hydropower to Maine. Hawthorn once again used a subcontractor, in an apparent attempt to hide its involvement in the campaign.

Hawthorn funneled money from NextEra to a contractor, Bernstein Shur, and a newly created LLC called Alpine Initiatives to make political contributions to the Maine Democratic Party. Hawthorn instructed Berstein Shur to conceal Hawthorn’s and NextEra’s involvement and its identity. In November 2023, investigators with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices found that Alpine Initiatives should have registered as a political action committee because its only actions were to influence political activities. Alpine agreed to pay a fine of $160,000 to settle the case.

In a separate but related case, investigators with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices found that Stop the Corridor, a Hawthorn-managed group collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to block the clean energy transmission line, failed to register as a “ballot question committee” as required by Maine law. Hawthorn was aware of and participated in the decision-making activities of Stop the Corridor, the Commission found. Stop the Corridor agreed to pay a fine of $50,000 to settle the case.