Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Robocall' allegations widen

More city ridings see complaints of false phone notices

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OTTAWA -- Additional Winnipeg ridings were apparently targeted as part of an alleged Tory dirty-tricks campaign designed to confuse voters about where to cast their ballots in last May's federal election.

According to the NDP, the party's campaign manager in Elmwood-Transcona has informed them of more than half a dozen complaints received in Jim Maloway's campaign office on election day from voters who said someone phoned them and said their polling station location had changed.

Elmwood-Transcona, a longtime NDP-held riding, saw Conservative Lawrence Toet upset Maloway, the incumbent MP, by 300 votes.

Maloway said the margin was so close the so-called robocalls may have played a role. Maloway said he did not know about the calls until contacted by the Free Press on Friday.

It's alleged similar calls were made in at least 18 other ridings, including Winnipeg South Centre.

In Saint Boniface, Liberal candidate Raymond Simard said he realized something was happening in mid-April when volunteers working on his phone bank got complaints.

Simard was trying to unseat Conservative Shelly Glover, who took the seat from him in the previous election.

"I was sitting in my office and our volunteers were all sitting very close to my office," he said. "A couple times I could hear some of our volunteers saying, 'No. It can't be our volunteers. We're trained and we're not rude to people.'

"The next day, I was knocking on doors, walking through some of our strong buildings, and some of our people at the doors were saying, 'What are you doing here? You guys just called at seven this morning.' So obviously it was happening."

Earlier this week, a Postmedia News investigation uncovered robocalls to a riding in Guelph, Ont., which were made from an Edmonton call centre.

However, Conservative Sen. Don Plett said the allegations any calls were made in Manitoba are unfounded.

"There is absolutely no proof to the part it was done in Winnipeg South Centre," Plett said. "We didn't use any company to do this. This is absolute hogwash."

Plett was one of the managers of Joyce Bateman's campaign in Winnipeg South Centre. In that hotly contested race, Bateman defeated 11-year veteran Liberal MP Anita Neville by 722 votes.

Plett said he doesn't have direct knowledge about what went on in Elmwood-Transcona but doesn't think it would have happened there, either. He said he's not calling anyone a liar but said the story isn't valid.

"There were a lot of people who were surprised that Lawrence Toet won and now there are people who are pointing fingers because they believe they have something," he said.

The automated calls, which are at the centre of a growing political storm, purported to be from Elections Canada. They said due to an expected increase in voter turnout, the location of polling stations had been changed, and gave a new address.

It was not true but it led to confusion and it's believed some voters gave up on voting when they couldn't figure out where to go.

The Guelph calls were traced via call display.

The company involved, RackNine Inc., appears to have only done work for the Conservative party during the campaign, however, there is no evidence the party or any of the campaigns that contracted RackNine were involved in the robocall scam. Conservative party campaign manager Jenni Byrne said her party would not tolerate such activity.

"The party was not involved in these calls and if anyone on a local campaign was involved, they will not play a role in a future campaign," she said in a written statement released Thursday.

RackNine Inc. has not yet released the name of the person who bought the service to make the calls to Guelph voters, but its president has said it had no idea about the content of the calls and it's co-operating with Elections Canada in the investigation.

A Conservative staffer in the office of MP Eve Adams was reportedly fired Friday after it was revealed the party was investigating him for possible involvement. The staffer was implicated during the campaign with attempting to steal a ballot box from a poll at the University of Guelph he claimed was illegal.

There has been no confirmation of whether the staffer was involved in the robocalls.

It is not clear whether calls allegedly made to other ridings also came from RackNine.

Elections Canada officials wouldn't comment on complaints received and wouldn't confirm if additional investigations were underway into calls in ridings other than Guelph.

Most of the ridings targeted involved close contests where suppressing the vote could have helped change the outcome.

Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Pat Martin said only the Conservatives stood to gain from trying to confuse Liberal and NDP voters about where to vote.

"In these situations you look to opportunity and you look to motive," he said. "Who would stand to gain by lying to NDP and Liberal voters?"

Martin is being sued by RackNine for defamation after comments he made about the company and its president Thursday.

-- with files from Postmedia News

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2012 A3

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