Romney-McCain ‘Dirty Tricks’ Calls Dispute Builds

By Justin Rood

Jan 7, 2008 8:53am

New Hampshire’s top prosecutor is pushing to discover the identity of the funder behind alleged "dirty tricks" phone calls that hit Republican voters in the state last November. Meanwhile, campaigns for the two candidates named in the calls blamed the other for the operation. New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly A. Ayotte made a public plea for information about the matter Thursday, after a polling company allegedly involved in the affair rebuffed a state subpoena for information. "The voters of New Hampshire deserve to know whether any presidential candidate violated New Hampshire’s law," Ayotte said in a statement released to the media. THE BLOTTER RECOMMENDS Photos Dirty Tricks on the Campaign Trail Blotter 2008: ‘Dirtiest Presidential Campaign in History’ Blotter Whose Push Poll Is It Anyway? Going Negative on Clinton, Obama; Positive on Edwards Do you have a tip for Brian Ross and the Investigative Team? Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage The 20-minute phone calls reportedly sounded at first like a traditional poll, but led to a series of questions portraying Romney and his Mormon faith in a harsh light. The calls also reportedly portrayed rival GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, Ariz., in a positive light. McCain asked Ayotte to investigate the calls last November and called them "disgraceful" and "outrageous." Romney also asked for an investigation into the calls, which have been characterized as "push polls," or quasi-polls designed to "push" a negative portrayal of a candidate, not gather data. The two campaigns have pointed fingers at each other over the calls. On Thursday, McCain campaign official Chuck Douglas said, "We have long suspected" that Romney had funded the calls "to test the Mormon issue." Romney’s camp, which has reportedly blamed McCain’s campaign finance reform legislation for making the calls possible, said those comments were "outrageous and irresponsible" and said Douglas should quit McCain’s campaign. Douglas later said he was speaking for himself and not the campaign. Attorney General Ayotte said Thursday the calls were made by a Utah-based Republican telemarketing company, Western Wats, which had been hired by Moore Information, a GOP polling firm in Oregon. Moore Information, headed by former National Republican Senatorial Committee chief Bob Moore, has refused to comply with a subpoena served in the matter. The subpoena requested documents pertaining to the phone calls. An Oregon court granted Moore Information a hearing on Jan. 16, delaying the possible release of new information about the calls until after the New Hampshire primary. A spokeswoman for Moore Information said only Moore was authorized to discuss his firm’s clients, and he was unavailable. In a prepared statement, the company said it has never engaged in push polling, and that "confidentiality agreements prohibit comment on specific surveys." An attorney for Moore, Terrence Kay, has reportedly said the poll was not commissioned by a candidate, political party, political action committee or an agent of such a group. Attempts to reach Kay Sunday were unsuccessful. The calls have been the subject of extensive speculation on blogs and political Web sites.  Several bloggers have noted connections between the Utah calling firm and the Romney campaign, including campaign donations from its employees to Romney. Jeff Welsh, a senior executive for Western Wats, confirmed his company was involved in the phone calling, but denied the calls were "push polls" and declined to say who paid for the calls. "I think their information is correct," Welsh said when asked if Attorney General Ayotte was right in naming Western Wats as the originator of the controversial calls. Welsh said, however, the calls were consistent with a "message testing" or "theme testing" effort, in which a customer pays to learn how certain portrayals play with voters. It was not a "push poll," according to Welsh, who noted most "push-poll" calls last less than five minutes.  He would not provide ABC News with a copy of the calls’ script. He said it was "safe to assume" that Attorney General Ayotte’s staff had seen a copy. Welsh said a non-disclosure agreement barred him from naming the customer who paid for the calls. On Sunday, the Romney campaign reiterated it was doing no message testing "of that kind" at the time the calls were made. Welsh said that the firm was not partisan, although members of his company had given money to Romney’s campaign, including Welsh himself. "I had a neighbor across the street, a sweet lady, knocked on my door. I said, ‘I think he’s a good guy.’ I wrote her a check,” Welsh explained. FEC records show Welsh gave Romney $500 last September. Welsh purported to be perplexed by the affair. "The whole thing leaves me scratching my head." This post has been updated. Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage.

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