OTTAWA - The Conservatives sought to toss what the opposition called a red herring Thursday into the ocean of allegations about voter phone calls during the recent federal election.
As complaints mount about harassing or misleading phone calls made during the campaign, the Conservatives said their party didn't use U.S.-based call services to get out the vote.
The Tories say that means they can't be behind phone calls reportedly originating from American area codes during the last campaign.
The calls came at odd or inappropriate hours, and complainants have said callers were often rude or confusing in their messaging.
The Conservatives accused the Liberals of possibly being the source of the calls, suggesting they use voter contact firms with American ties.
But the Liberals immediately sloughed off the accusations, calling them a smokescreen designed to detract from legitimate concerns about voter fraud. They also questioned the Tories' research skills.
In question period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper challenged Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae to produce evidence that the Conservatives were linked to the calls.
"We've done some checking," Harper said. "We've only found that, in fact, it was the Liberal party that did source its phone calls from the United States.
"I wonder if the reason the honourable leader of the Liberal party will not in fact show us his evidence is it will point in fact that it was the Liberal party that made these calls."
The Conservatives pinpointed two firms used by the Liberals as having U.S. links.
But one, First Contact, said the only link it has with the U.S. is when it does telephone town halls.
"All of our live calls are made from centres in Canada under our direct supervision," First Contact President Mike O'Neill said in a statement.
"All of our data and servers are hosted in Canada. We have never engaged a U.S.-based call centre and we have no links to any businesses operating in North Dakota."
In the House of Commons, Conservative MPs also said that former Liberal MP Joe Volpe had paid "Prime Contact, a calling company with offices in North Dakota," for their services during the campaign.
Kim Kemmer of Prime Contact in North Dakota said his company has done no work for Canadian political parties or candidates and does not have a Canadian arm involved in political activity.
In fact, Elections Canada returns show Volpe paid Prime Contact Group, a Canadian company, for its services.
That company did not immediately return a call for comment about whether it has any ties to North Dakota.
Rae said the Conservatives are stonewalling.
"As we get closer and closer to the problem, they are only able to mount one particular kind of defence and that is to attack," he said.
"So they will attack. They will make an attack on another company. They'll make an attack on this or that. They'll talk about something that’s completely irrelevant. It has nothing to do with the subject at hand. The problem hasn't changed."
Prime Contact Group was also used by Liberal candidate Alex Smardenka in the riding of Simcoe-Grey, where some misleading phone calls were reported.
The riding association posted a statement to its website Thursday saying the "third party services were not being used during the time complainants claimed they received their calls."
In pointing fingers at the Liberals, the Tories did not try to link them to calls voters received directing them to wrong or non-existent polling stations.
Elections Canada is investigating one such incident in Guelph, Ont., and there are now reports of others.
The New Democrats said the allegations raised by the Tories are clouding the issue.
"There's a real effort to muddy the waters lately," said New Democrat MP Pat Martin.
"And it's getting a little frustrating because there's a big, big difference between mischief and nuisance calls during the election campaign and the criminal fraud involved, with identifying yourself as a government official and lying to somebody about their polling station moving."