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Republican national 'robo-calling' scam on eve of election

Mike Sheehan
Published: Monday November 6, 2006

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The Associated Press reported on November 1 that the National Republican Campaign Committee was set to launch a nation-wide "robocall" campaign. Now that the effort is underway just before Election Day, writers around the blogosphere are tracking evidence of "Republican dirty tricks" across the country, while mainstream media coverage has been noticeably lacking.

The onslaught started at once, as Jill Porter at The Philadelphia Daily News reported last Wednesday. She'd begun receiving automatically generated calls that seemed at first listen to be coming from the the campaign of Lois Murphy, Democratic challenger to incumbent GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania's 6th District.

The calls, which begin by offering "important information about Lois Murphy," are designed to mislead voters into thinking the message is from her. Most recipients slam down the phone before finding out otherwise - and then call to complain.

"We've got a ton of complaints, starting about two weeks ago," [a Murphy campaign staffer] said. "Some of our biggest supporters have said, 'If you call me again, I'm not voting for Lois.'"

[Gerlach's communications director] said they use admittedly unpopular robocalls only to respond quickly to misinformation in a political mailer about Gerlach's voting record. "This is not us. We're sorry. We're not making these calls."

The culprit in this race is the National Republican Congressional Committee, an organization that's used such scurrilous campaign tactics this season that it has been disavowed in some instances by the candidates it is supporting. In the past week alone, FCC records reflect $22,119 for anti-Murphy phone-bank expenses, said NRCC spokesman Ed Petru.

The legality and appropriateness of such deceptive "robo-calls" quickly came into question. According to FCC rules, all prerecorded messages must "at the beginning of the message, state clearly the identity of the business, individual, or other entity that is responsible for initiating the call." Yet these seemingly forbidden calls continued through the weekend.

Bloggers began posting accounts from people around the country affected by similar contacts. Josh Marshall blogged on a situation in New York's 19th District:

Three TPM readers have reported a phone scam with a double whammy. The call purports to be for John Hall, the Democratic challenger, but makes negative assertions about Hall. If the caller hangs up, they are called again and again, as many as seven times, according to one report.

So either the recipient hears a negative message about Hall, or they think Hall is harrassing them with repeated phone calls. Either way it's a win for Hall's opponent, Republican incumbent Sue Kelly.

Reports piled up around the blogosphere. Brad Friedman at The BRAD Blog had an extensive report on a similar situation in New Mexico; John Aravosis at AMERICAblog blogged of suspicious calling activity in the Philadelphia area; HorsesAss.org covered a case in Washington state; Blue Jersey had a similar story in Bergen County, where "an autodial robocall is being made that starts out sounding like a positive Bob Menendez message." Alarmed by the breadth of the reports, bloggers at MyDD and firedoglake reckoned the scheme from a wider perspective, while Daily Kos compiled a list of a dozen more states where robo-calling instances were occurring. All of the calls were believed to be a part of the NRCC effort.

By Sunday evening, a citizen complaint in New Hampshire to the office of the state's attorney general prompted the Republican Party there to cease its robocalls, but they continued elsewhere, as in Illinois, where the Chicago Tribune newsblog The Swamp reported that Democrats were afraid that "annoyed recipients of the calls, who often hang up before it becomes apparent that the calls are being made by Republicans, will be turned off to their candidates, blaming Democrats for interrupting their dinner or sleep."

On Monday, the day before the election, the situation came to a head, as RAW STORY reported the anger spreading among Democrats as they realized the scope of the NRCC's effort.

The mainstream media, having initially reported the NRCC's plan, seemed slow to cover the reaction to it, and while the The New York Times acknowledged "the new telemarketing ploy" and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a blistering press release asserting that the NRCC had "spent $2.1 million on calls, nearly $600,000 on attack calls in the last week alone," television news seemed either indifferent or uninformed... or perhaps worse, as Josh Marshall wrote at Talking Points Memo:

CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS and Fox are each ignoring the GOP's nationwide campaign of false-flag robocalls meant to harass voters and fool them into thinking the calls come from Democrats. If it were Dem on GOP, if it were on Drudge, the cable nets would be on it wall-to-wall. As it is, they're content to ignore it. That's because the powers-that-be in the mainstream media are in the tow of the Republican party.

Although it was known that the NRCC was funding the effort, bloggers seeking more information on the company actually responsible for the calls themselves identified their source as being Conquest Communications in Richmond, Virginia. Paul Kiel at TPMmuckraker, noting the "irony of ironies," wrote on Monday afternoon that since posting the report on Conquest, "the company that's been conducting hundreds of thousands of often harrassing calls on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee" had "taken down their 'Contact Us' and 'About' pages" which included the company's main phone number. "Maybe they were getting too many phone calls?" quipped Kiel.

At last, by Monday evening, some major television news sources began to report on the uproar over the robo-calls. ABC News reported on a "cease and desist" letter issued by the general counsel of the DCCC to his counterpart at the NRCC, while CNN offered some coverage of the growing fiasco.

What effect the robo-calling strategem--and the limited national news reporting on it--will have on the election remains to be seen, but whatever Tuesday's outcome, the validity, legality and morality of it certainly will be argued about for some time to come.

For their part, neither the NRCC nor its chairman, Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-NY), have had any official comment.