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Liberals build their case in robo-call scandal as Tory attack backfires

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae speaks to the media in Toronto on Saturday at a press conference over alleged robocalls to Liberal supporters in last year's election.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The opposition Liberals are assembling a database of allegedly fraudulent phone calls to electors – what they call a body of evidence against the Harper Conservatives – as the governing Tories struggle to beat back accusations they were behind attempts to suppress votes in the 2011 ballot.

This systematic approach is an attempt to add more heft to opposition accusations that the problem goes beyond Guelph, where Elections Canada has alleged a Conservative operative hiding behind the alias "Pierre Poutine" used automated calls to suppress the opposition vote.

The Liberals are collecting complaints from Canadians through local campaign staff and supporters, sifting through hundreds of tips about robo-calls or live calls in order to "piece together the extent and reach of the scheme," caucus spokesman Daniel Lauzon said.

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The phony phone-call controversy now appears firmly embedded in the federal political landscape and likely to dog the Conservatives for some time. Opposition parties are weaving the allegations into the narrative they're building as they try to motivate supporters during the long years of a majority-government mandate – when another election still appears far off.

NDP MP Pat Martin, the party's main attack dog on the file, called it an abuse of the electoral process in the Commons, talking of how "some Conservative fraudster with a speed dialer" has cheated voters out of the right to cast a ballot "free of interference."

Opposition parties have so far alleged phony attack calls occurred in more than 40 ridings.

The Liberals said they will ensure every complaint they log is shared with Elections Canada, which is also investigating calls made by the Conservative Party's main call centre, the Responsive Marketing Group. There is no evidence RMG's callers deliberately misled electors, though.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, saw a concerted attempt to turn the tables on their Liberal accusers fail Thursday when they mistakenly accused the opposition party of using a "U.S.-based" company to call voters.

The Tories were trying to counter allegations from interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae that the Tories arranged for pre-election calls impersonating the Liberal Party to alienate Grit voters.

The Liberals allege hundreds of voters received phone calls at inconvenient hours from people presenting themselves as being Liberal Party workers. In an apparent bid to alienate electors, these calls arrived at supper time, late at night or on the Sabbath for Jewish voters.

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Long-time Liberal MP Joe Volpe, who was defeated in the closely fought Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence last year, complained that electors were flooded with repetitive and harassing phone calls, falsely made in his campaign's name. Call display showed the calls as originating in North Dakota, he said.

The Conservatives suggested Thursday that it was the Liberal Party's own get-out-the-vote operations that were making the calls and said the burden should be on Mr. Rae to prove it was otherwise.

The Tories invited select journalists to party headquarters to try to make their case Thursday.

Conservative officials said public records show Liberal ridings across Canada spent more than $1-million on firms such as First Contact and Prime Contact that telephoned electors to seek support and call people to gauge their support.

Dean Del Mastro, a Conservative MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, followed up this counterattack in the Commons Thursday, pointing out Mr. Volpe's campaign spent money on voter-support call firm Prime Contact.

He told the Commons the firm hired by Mr. Volpe also has offices in North Dakota – a claim that Prime Contact later shot down.

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"Joe Volpe paid over $25,000 to Prime Contact, a company with offices in North Dakota," Mr. Del Mastro told MP.

Dan Aquila, vice-president of operations at Prime Contact, said contrary to what Mr. Del Mastro stated, his company "is a wholly owned, proudly Canadian company."

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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