Friday, March 09, 2012

On your knees and beg forgiveness!

Firms linked to voter confusion tank an aggressive stance against bad press
By Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor, 
Friday, March 9, 2012
Elections Canada is investigating 'robocalls' made to Guelph, Ontario during the last federal election. (Photograph by: Photo Illustration Jason Kryk, Postmedia News)

OTTAWA — The two companies in the spotlight over Conservative election calls have been keeping their lawyers busy.

Responsive Marketing Group, which handled the bulk of Conservative phone banking, and Campaign Research, RMG's chief competitor, have both mounted aggressive legal campaigns aimed at journalists and politicians who suggest either firm is any way responsible for misleading or harassing calls in the last election.

RMG is threatening to sue media organizations which write about the firm, and Campaign Research on Thursday won an apology and retraction from Green Party activist John Fryer, who had reported in a British Columbia publication that he had heard voter suppression tactics discussed at a Manning Centre campaign manager course in Victoria in 2010.

Postmedia News learned of the alleged conversation two weeks ago but was not able to authenticate the report.Campaign Research also published a clarification Wednesday from NDP MP Pat Martin, explaining what he meant by comments about the firm on CTV last month.

For its part, RMG has sent legal letters to the National Post and the Internet news aggregator National Newswatch, over a story RMG believes was defamatory. It also requested corrections from the Vancouver Sun and Calgary Herald for coverage of a Canadian Press story, and sent a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen, complaining about the coverage.

And RMG confirmed Thursday that people who worked in its phone banks are restrained from speaking out about the firm's practices by confidentiality agreements.The company says the agreements are "standard practice" for its employees."Given the nature of RMG's work — and the private and confidential nature of the information we collect on behalf of our clients, all employees are required to sign confidentiality agreements," RMG said in an emailed statement."This has always been the case at RMG, as we give our clients an undertaking that all information collected on their behalf will not be shared or otherwise disclosed.

"So far, only one RMG employee has spoken publicly about calls made during the campaign. The Toronto Star reported that Annette Desgagne said she was concerned she had passed on incorrect information about polling station information when working in RMG's call centre in Thunder Bay, Ont.Desgagne said she and other call centre employees were concerned enough about the calls they were making that they contacted the RCMP.

The company maintains that it called only identified Conservative supporters.

RMG employees who speak to the media would be at risk of being sued for violating their confidentiality agreements, said John Manwaring, a labour law professor at the University of Ottawa.

But the agreements couldn't keep RMG employees from talking with investigators from Elections Canada, who reportedly were planning to interview some of them this week.

"The employer could not use the clause to keep the employee from participating in this kind of investigation," said Manwaring.

RMG says it is co-operating fully with the agency and has "proactively invited Elections Canada to investigate as we have absolutely nothing to hide.

"In the federal election, RMG worked for 98 Conservative campaigns and worked for the party's national campaign, too, although the party will not say how much it paid to any of its vendors. Knowledgeable insiders estimate RMG does $10 million to $15 million worth of work for the party in a year.

Local campaign managers and candidates normally had no control over the work of RMG, even though they were receiving services from it for which they were billed, sources say.

In addition to its voter contact work, RMG also fundraises on behalf of the Conservatives and the Liberal Party of British Columbia, according to one employee who spoke on the condition his name not be used.

The employee provided a script used by telemarketers who represented themselves as calling on behalf of "support services" and pushed the Conservative omnibus crime bill to raise money for the party.

The script focused on the perceived threat to the public from sex offenders.

"We're just fed up with seeing offenders who repeatedly break the law or sexually molest our children get out early on good behaviour," the script says, before directing the conversation to donations to the party.

Callers would first suggest a donation of $250, then, if the potential donor balked, $100 and finally $50.

The script used for the B.C. Liberals said the party needs money to finance the provincial election next year and "to make sure that the NDP doesn't get their foot in the door."

Montreal's La Presse has obtained recordings of one RMG fundraiser who was let go by the company for making inappropriate comments during phone calls to supporters seeking money.

"We don't want to talk to socialists or separatists or anything like that," the campaigner, Don Duke, said to one former donor who was balking at the latest request.

A year before the federal election, RMG merged with a Calgary-based company called Xentel DM, a fundraising telemarketer cited for dubious business practices.Liberal and NDP supporters across the country have been sending reports to party research offices in Ottawa that suggest a pattern: non-Conservative voters in ridings across Canada received voter-identification calls, then later received a call telling them their polling station had moved when it had not, sometimes with the caller claiming to be from Elections Canada.

The opposition cites this as clear evidence of a national voter-suppression strategy. The Conservatives say any mistakes were likely the result of Liberal phone banks gone awry.

There are also reports of fake calls, harassing Liberal supporters, seemingly with the objective of discouraging them from voting.While MPs stand in the House and decry it all as a smear, Conservatives in the backrooms are quietly trying to figure it out.

"They're still trying to figure out who did it, what happened," said one Conservative on Thursday. "There's a lot of finger-pointing going on."


smaher@postmedia.comgmcregor@thecitizen.com
Final Apology

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