Tory pollster in Cotler affair faces misconduct probe
OTTAWA - A Conservative pollster's assertion that his company is in the business of defeating Liberals has raised eyebrows at the market research industry's watchdog association.
"Definitely that's not what marketing research is all about," said Brendan Wycks, executive director of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association.
The MRIA, a voluntary, self-regulatory body, is now looking into three formal complaints of professional misconduct by Campaign Research Inc., the company behind the alleged misinformation campaign against Liberal MP Irwin Cotler. Wycks said the company's self-proclaimed partisan motivation will be part of the MRIA's assessment.
Campaign Research was hired by federal Conservatives to conduct a survey last month in Cotler's Montreal riding. Constituents complained they were falsely told Cotler had resigned or was about to resign and that a byelection was imminent.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, Andrew Scheer, ruled earlier this week that the ploy was "reprehensible" but he had no authority to find that Cotler's parliamentary privileges had been violated.
The ruling Tories have refused to apologize for the tactic, maintaining rumours about Cotler's potential resignation have swirled for years and it's legitimate for them to try to identify the Tory vote in the event that a byelection might be called.
Nick Kouvalis, a principal partner at Campaign Research, also made no apologies for his firm's conduct in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen's Glen McGregror.
"We've done tens of millions of dials through our call centre and there's never been any complaint launched against us," Kouvalis said. "We're in the business of getting Conservatives elected and ending Liberal careers. We're good at it."
Campaign Research has long and deep ties to the Tories. It did polling for almost 40 Conservative candidates during last spring's election campaign, including for Scheer. Company co-founder, Richard Ciano, is a former vice-president of the federal Conservatives and is currently running for the presidency of the Ontario Tories.
Campaign Research is a "gold-seal" corporate member of the MRIA. As such, it must abide by the association's code of conduct and good practice and submit to an independent review of its research procedures every three years.
Under the code, public opinion research "must always be carried out objectively and in accordance with established scientific principles." Researchers are not supposed to "act in any way that could bring discredit on the marketing research profession or lead to a loss of public confidence in it."
Wycks said the MRIA has received three formal complaints about Campaign Research's conduct in the Cotler affair -- one from another polling company that is not involved in political surveys and two from members of the public who have assured Wycks they have no partisan affiliations.
Wycks said the association has also received up to a dozen expressions of concern from members of the public, which may yet turn into formal complaints.
"They've taken note of it in the media and I think they know that the allegations are not what legitimate survey research is all about. And so they're expressing their concern," he said.
As well, he said several other MRIA members have urged the association to "treat this with the utmost seriousness and with dispatch."
Campaign Research has 30 days in which to resolve the matter to the satisfaction of complainants and Wycks. If it does not, the matter will be referred to a complaints panel.
If the panel concludes Campaign Research did violate the code, the company could face sanctions, which range from a public reprimand to suspension or even expulsion from the MRIA.
On Friday, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae urged Canada's chief electoral watchdog to wade into the Cotler affair as well.
In a letter to chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand, Rae noted the Canada Elections Act prohibits anyone from knowingly making false statements about the withdrawal of a candidate during an election.
Rae acknowledged that the campaign against Cotler did not take place during an election period but argued the situation is "analogous" and the perpetrators should be prosecuted.
If Mayrand concludes there's nothing he can do, Rae urged him to at least say whether he believes the Elections Act should be amended to make it clear that spreading misinformation about a candidate is illegal -- at any time, not just during election campaigns.