POLITICS

Robocalls Fines: CRTC Punishes Federal Tories, NDP, Two MPs And RackNine Firm

05/29/2013 11:30 EDT | Updated 07/29/2013 05:12 EDT
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OTTAWA - Political parties, elected officials and the telemarketer used by the elusive "Pierre Poutine" to make fraudulent telephone calls during the 2011 federal election have been slapped with hefty fines for breaking the rules for robocalls.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission made the surprise announcement Wednesday that it has dished out a combined $369,000 in penalties as part of a wide-ranging investigation into the use of robocalls.

The regulator also hinted that more fines are coming.

The federal Conservatives and NDP, Ontario's Progressive Conservatives, Alberta's Wildrose Party, Liberal MP Marc Garneau, Conservative MP Blake Richards and Edmonton-based RackNine Inc. were all fined for various offences.

The penalties run from a few thousand dollars for Garneau up to $90,000 for Wildrose — the largest amount ever levied against a political party by the CRTC. Wildrose acknowledged the fine last week.

So far, the regulator says, Wildrose, the Ontario Conservatives, the NDP, RackNine and Garneau have all paid their fines.

The federal Conservative party, which was fined $78,000, and Richards, who was fined $14,400, have yet to pay the penalty and have 30 days to do so.

"We appreciate the co-operation we received during our investigations," CRTC chief compliance officer Andrea Rosen said in a statement.

"We expect political party associations and candidates who are running for office to put appropriate safeguards in place to ensure compliance with the Unsolicited Telecommunications Rules in future campaigns."

Fred DeLorey, a Conservative party spokesman, said the fine would be paid Wednesday.

"We appreciate that the CRTC is clarifying rules for all federal political parties and applying them across the board," he said in a statement.

"We co-operated fully with the CRTC when this matter was brought to our attention by meeting with them and providing all documents they requested.

"We will be paying the fine today and we will be seeking the CRTC’s assistance in ensuring that our compliance program is appropriate and comprehensive to ensure we completely comply with the rules in the future."

Last week, Wildrose said it paid the penalty for violating automated phone call rules in 2011, as well as before, during and after the April 2012 provincial election. But the other fines came as a surprise.

The Conservative party was fined for a robocall campaign in Saskatchewan between Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 related to proposed changes to riding boundaries. People were not told the calls were being made on behalf of the Conservatives, nor was a mailing address provided, the regulator said.

The New Democrats were fined $40,000 for robocalls made between Jan. 11 and Jan. 20, 2012, in the Quebec electoral district of St-Maurice-Champlain, after MP Lise St-Denis defected to the Liberals. As with the Conservative calls, the NDP did not identify itself as being behind the calls or include a mailing address or telephone number.

The NDP admitted that it did not identify itself during the calls.

"The NDP acknowledged at the time that these calls were made on our behalf as part of a political campaign to raise awareness about Ms. St-Denis' betrayal of the people of Saint-Maurice-Champlain," Nathan Rotman, the NDP's national director, said in a statement.

"We did, however, fail to identify ourselves as the purchaser of the call on the message, as is required by CRTC regulations. As we stated publicly at the time, we apologize for the error and are committed to ensuring it does not happen again."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair described the calls as an isolated incident.

"The team made a mistake in one case," Mulcair said. "This is technology that we use literally every day. There was one mistake made a while back. We didn't fight it. We just admitted it straight up."

"If I understand correctly, the failure had been to mention that it was the party. The fine is going to be paid, we're going to move on, we're going to make sure it never happens again."

RackNine was fined $60,000 for 15 robocall campaigns it conducted for "a number of clients" between March 2011 and Feb. 1, 2013.

RackNine was caught up in the so-called robocalls affair, in which a shadowy operative known only as Pierre Poutine used the company to make thousands of calls on election day directing voters in Guelph, Ont., to the wrong polling stations.

The company has denied having anything to do with the fraudulent calls.

The CRTC fines cover the period in which the fraudulent and misleading robocalls were to have occurred. A CRTC spokesman said the regulator was unaware of any connection between the Pierre Poutine calls and the fines.

"Not that we know," Denis Carmel said in an email.

The Ontario PC Party was fined $85,000 for failing to identify itself on calls made between Sept. 1 and 7, 2011, ahead of the province's election.

Garneau was fined $2,500 for failing to properly identify himself on robocalls made during his failed Liberal leadership campaign.

"We're pleased (the CRTC) didn't find anything wrong with anything that the Liberal party had done in the past, even though it found cause to sanction both the NDP as a party and the Conservatives as a party," Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said.

"Marc Garneau, his leadership campaign was found to have made a small error in a call it made, a telephone poll that it put out. Marc, I'm pleased to say, fully complied and was very co-operative with the investigation, took personal responsibility for it and paid off the fine immediately from his personal accounts."

Richards was fined $14,400 for failing to properly identify himself in two robocall campaigns in his riding north of Calgary in August and October 2012.

Russ Lyster, a spokesman for Richards, emailed a statement on the MP's behalf.

"My only intent was to conduct a legitimate, accurate and nonpartisan survey of my constituents' views," the statement said.

"I have fully and promptly co-operated with the CRTC’s review of this matter, and I intend to work with CRTC to ensure I have a compliance program in place going forward."

This is not the first time the CRTC has levied fines for robocalls.

Last year, the federal Liberal riding association in Guelph, Ont., was hit with a $4,900 fine for robocalls that broke the rules during the 2011 election campaign.

The CRTC said a recorded message that went out to voters on Apr. 30, 2011, violated telemarketing rules by failing to state that it came from the Liberal party or MP Frank Valeriote's campaign.

— With files from Joan Bryden

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