Liberal campaign in Guelph fined for robocalls violation

Liberal MP Frank Valeriote's campaign team in Guelph has been fined after a CRTC investigation found that automated phone messages sent to voters in the riding failed to identify the source of the robocalls.

MP Frank Valeriote's team sent automated phone messages to voters without identifying source

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has found the Liberal riding association in Guelph, Ont. guilty of violating the Telecommunications Act for its use of an automated robocall in the last federal election.

The phone message from a fictitious woman told voters that Conservative candidate Marty Burke opposed abortion but failed to inform people that the call was from the local campaign of Liberal candidate Frank Valeriote.

The calls made over approximately one hour on April 30, 2011 were found not in compliance with the CRTC's Unsolicited Telecommunications Rules.

Liberal MP Frank Valeriote admitted in March that his Guelph campaign sent voters automated telephone messages without identifying their source. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The rules require that calls identify on whose behalf a call is made, provide necessary call-back information and display the originating telephone number or an alternate number where the originator can be reached.

Valeriote won the 2011 election with just over 43 percent of the vote. Burke finished second with 33 percent of the ballots cast.

Burke's campaign asked the CRTC to investigate. The findings of the investigation impose a fine of $4,900 on the Liberal riding association.

In addition to the monetary penalty, the riding association also agreed to implement a "compliance program" for future campaigns, which includes education and training for campaign staff, record-keeping obligations and the appointment of an officer to make sure the rules are followed.

"We appreciate that Mr. Valeriote and the Association fully cooperated with our investigation and committed to comply with the Rules in future campaigns," said Andrea Rosen, the CRTC’s Chief Compliance and Enforcement Officer, in a press release. "We expect political party associations and candidates who are running for office to put appropriate safeguards in place to ensure compliance with the rules."

Valeriote apologetic

Last March, Conservatives demanded that Valeriote apologize for the robocalls. Valeriote admitted the robocalls originated with his team but said it was an attempt to respond to an issue raised during the campaign and was not meant to suppress votes.

In a statement issued Friday, Valeriote said he accepted the CRTC's findings. "We were unaware of certain requirements and inadvertently neglected to include some identifying features in the message," his press release said.

"I take full responsibility and apologize for the infringement," Valeriote said. "This has been an important learning experience, not just for me, but for all MPs and future candidates."

Speaking to CBC News, Valeriote portrayed the calls as a mistake that can be made in the heat of a hard-fought campaign.

"We were under constant attack by particularly the Conservative Party. You'll recall they tried to steal a ballot box, they tried to slow down votes at an advance poll, they were making late-night calls," he said. "Other than making sure that we had put in the proper tag lines and complied with the CRTC rules with respect to this call, I don't think I would have done anything differently."

Valeriote said that the calls were made on the Saturday two days before the May 2 election, when then-Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff had visited the riding. He and his team were "working under a lot of pressure" that day, he said, and wanted to respond to campaign literature distributed by his opponents which incorrectly said he was "pro-abortion."

"The commission's findings are fair," the Liberal MP said. "I actually reported myself to Elections Canada before Marty Burke may have been aware of the call or contacted Elections Canada.  At my first opportunity I spoke to them to indicate the errors that were made."

Valeriote added that he's volunteered to assist the CRTC in future education efforts about the rules governing automated telephone calls in campaigns.

Conservative Party spokesman Fred DeLorey reacted to the CRTC's findings on Twitter, writing that "Mr. Valeriote's dirty tricks during the last election campaign are simply shameful."

"What's more shameful?" he continued, "Mr. Valeriote's attempts at covering up these misleading calls." 

DeLorey also raised the question of whether the election outcome would have been different without these calls.

'Pierre Poutine' allegations unresolved

Another set of robocalls made in Guelph is currently under intense scrutiny by Elections Canada.

The agency is investigating phone calls that claimed to be on behalf of Elections Canada and tried to direct people to the wrong polling station or polling stations that did not exist. Elections Canada did not use robocalls in Guelph to advise voters of any polling station changes.

The RCMP has now joined the search for the suspect(s) behind the apparent attempt at voter suppression.

So far, the Elections Canada investigation has centered on an individual who gave a false name of "Pierre Poutine" to register a disposable cell phone with a phony address and use it to order the automated calls from an outside company, RackNine.  "Poutine" paid for the call service using untraceable prepaid credit cards purchased at two drug stores in Guelph.

The Conservative Party has insisted it had no involvement in this scheme or any misleading robocalls in other ridings.

"I do not want [voters in Guelph] to think for one minute that my call had anything to do with the voter suppression calls that occurred on election day," Valeriote told CBC News.

with files from Alison Crawford