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Liberals say CRTC should investigate robocalls over Saskatchewan riding boundaries by Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher

Feb 6, 2013

Source: StarPhoenix

OTTAWA — Conservative political director Jenni Byrne is ultimately responsible for a “deceptive” push poll conducted in Saskatchewan without the knowledge of Tory MPs, Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski told reporters on Wednesday.

After first denying any involvement, the party acknowledged Tuesday it was behind the poll, blaming it on “internal miscommunication.”

The call was a fake poll seemingly designed to help build opposition to a riding redistribution in the works that Conservatives oppose.

On Wednesday, Lukiwski told a call-in show on CBC Radio that Byrne, the director of political operations for the party, is ultimately responsible.

“I don’t know which party official it would be, but I know that Jenni Byrne, who is the executive director, said, well, ultimately the buck stops with her,” he said. “She would take full responsibility.”

His comments indicate that the “push poll” robocall — an ethically dubious tactic more commonly seen in U.S. politics — originated with the federal party in Ottawa and not with local party officials acting on their own.

Byrne, who keeps a low public profile, is seen in Ottawa as a talented, tough and formidable operative, fiercely loyal to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Lukiwski said he has told the party that he is not happy with the calls.

“The problem is they were not identified as Conservative party, and that I find, and I’ve expressed this to the party, not only disappointing but I wasn’t very happy with it,” he said. “Let’s put it that way.”

In the face of a barrage of opposition questions Wednesday in the House of Commons, however, Harper insisted the party broke no rules.

"The party followed the rules and our position to the public is very clear on the commission," he said. "The commission is working to re-draw the electoral boundaries according to the law."

He said it's part of the normal effort to produce new electoral boundaries.

"We are simply operating within the process," he said.

Last week, Lukiwski told reporters that neither he nor his Conservative colleagues from Saskatchewan had anything to do with the calls.

On Tuesday, the Citizen and Postmedia News linked the calls to Conservative voter contact firm RackNine by asking an American forensic audio expert to match voice-mail messages from Matt Meier, the CEO of RackNine, with anonymous voice-mail messages from Chase Research, the company that carried out the push polls.

After the analysis was complete, the Citizen and Postmedia News asked the party and Meier to confirm that they had nothing to do with the calls. Soon afterwards, the party issued a statement acknowledging that it was, in fact, behind the calls.

Meier has not responded to repeated calls or emails requesting comment, but when reached Wednesday, he said, “I appreciate your call, Glen, have a nice day,” then hung up.

A search through the registry of Alberta trade names and corporations failed to turn up any company called Chase Research.

Meier and RackNine first came to public prominence a year ago, when it was revealed that his firm was used to send the “Pierre Poutine” message that sent voters in Guelph to the wrong polling stations in the May 2011 federal election.

He has stated that he had no idea his system was being used for unethical purposes and has helped Elections Canada investigate the calls, providing electronic records that helped investigators link the calls to an Internet IP address.

Saskatchewan’s one opposition MP, Liberal Ralph Goodale, on Tuesday sent a letter to the CRTC asking for an investigation based on his suspicion the call broke telemarketing rules by failing to identify the originator.

Goodale says the robocalls are a deplorable attempt to undermine the work of the federal commission drafting new riding boundaries in the province.

He says the federal telecommunications regulator should investigate the calls.

Since the summer, Conservative MPs have repeatedly responded to questions about the robocalls scandal by pointing out that the only finding of wrongdoing over election calls was against Guelph Liberal MP Frank Valeriote’s riding association.

The association paid a fine for a CRTC violation over an call that attacked the Conservative candidate for his position on abortion, without identifying the Valeriote campaign as the sponsor of the ad.

In question period Wednesday, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair pressed Harper on whether he knew about these “fraudulent” robocalls made using a fake company name.

Harper did not say whether he was aware of the calls.

Conservative MP Brad Trost, whose Saskatoon riding would be cleaved into separate rural and urban sections by the proposed boundary adjustments, said he was unaware of the robocall until after it was sent out. He said people he spoke to are opposed to the changes.

Although he admitted he hadn’t actually heard the push-poll call, he said it has “good and accurate information” and he agrees with it.

“I heard other people describe it,” he said. “One of my colleagues had it at her residence and her husband got it and he said it was fine. I’ll take his word for it.”

The only problem, Trost said, was that the call should have identified the Conservatives as the source.

© StarPhoenix