OTTAWA - A Conservative pollster has been censured by the market research industry's watchdog for conducting a misinformation campaign against Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.
An investigation by the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association concluded Wednesday that the actions of Campaign Research Inc. brought the industry into disrepute.
"The actions of Campaign Research have likely caused the Canadian public to lose confidence in marketing research and have tarnished the image of the marketing research profession," says a ruling by the association's three-member panel.
The panel was struck after the MRIA received seven complaints of professional misconduct against Campaign Research.
The complaints related to a voter identification poll the company conducted last autumn on behalf of the federal Conservative party in Cotler's Montreal riding.
The company's callers suggested to constituents — falsely — that Cotler either had or was about to quit as the MP for Mount Royal.
According to a script provided to the panel by Campaign Research, callers told respondents: "I am calling on behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada and the reason I am calling is to ask if Stephen Harper can count on your support in the upcoming election."
If asked what election was upcoming, the caller was to add: "Some people are suggesting that the current MP may retire so we're calling on behalf of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada to ask you if you would consider supporting the Conservative Party of Canada if there is a byelection."
Cotler, who had no intention of retiring, complained last fall to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Andrew Scheer, that the poll impaired his ability to do his job as an MP. Scheer agreed that the tactic was "reprehensible" but concluded he was powerless to take any action.
Cotler finally got some satisfaction Wednesday from the long-awaited ruling.
"Here we have an independent panel finding that they violated public confidence, their own code of conduct and professional responsibility," he said.
He noted, however, that he has never received an apology from the Conservative party "for the kind of permanent, false and misleading campaign they've been running in my riding for two and a half years."
The MRIA is a voluntary body with limited powers to police the market research industry. However, it can suspend or expel members who violate its code of conduct, depending on the number and seriousness of the violations.
The panel did not recommend going that far with Campaign Research, although it said the company violated three provisions of the code and that the violations were "more serious than a minor transgression."
It settled on censuring Campaign Research, which essentially amounts to a public rebuke.
The panel concluded that the company violated a core principle of the code of conduct, to act in a manner that "serves to promote and augment, not diminish" public confidence in market research.
It also violated its professional responsibility to refrain from acting in any way that could discredit the industry and to refrain from using its membership in the MRIA to justify its actions, the panel said.
The panel was particularly disturbed by a television interview with Campaign Research principal Nick Kouvalis in which he insisted his company had followed the rules and pointed to its "gold seal" status with the MRIA as proof.
"We observe that Mr. Kouvalis ... used Campaign Research's Gold Seal certification and its MRIA membership to attempt to convince the Canadian public that Campaign Research did nothing wrong in carrying out the voter identification project in Mount Royal," the panel said, calling that a "blatant contravention" of the code.
The controversy prompted the MRIA earlier this year to update its code of conduct to spell out that voter identification or partisan promotion can not be conducted under the guise of market research.
Kouvalis has publicly boasted about his company's partisan motivation.
"We're in the business of getting Conservatives elected and ending Liberal careers," he was quoted as saying in December 2011. "We're good at it."
The panel said the Mount Royal poll was actually conducted by a division of Campaign Research, Campaign Support, although Kouvalis did not, in defending the poll, make any distinction.
Since then, Campaign Support has been established as a separate legal entity.