Thursday 17 April 2014

Candidate Tip #1 - Do your Research

As your Candidate Watchdog, I hope that 2014 Municipal Candidates, and all candidates for political office will read this blog and my tips on avoiding pitfalls that I should have avoided myself.

A professional Campaign

Around this time in 2010, I made the decision to run for office again. This time I was going to do things right I promised myself. I started by looking at all the resources that were available to candidates, I asked a few friends to help me search for a Campaign manager who had some experience. I met a young man who impressed me, he had run a few other local campaigns and had a good reputation. I asked for references and he provided them. I did my due diligence as I had done countless times over a long career in real estate. The manager did a great job and executed our plan nearly perfectly.

Campaign Services Marketing

The problems began a few weeks later. Shortly after I filed my paperwork, I began receiving dozens of emails from all sorts of vendors. Printers, advertisers, digital strategists and what are called voter contact firms. I was particularly impressed by an email I received one day from a company called Prime Contact, they offered a "strategic grassroots approach" to campaigns and had many endorsements on their website from prominent politicians I was familiar with. I forwarded the email to my manager and asked if he knew them, he was familiar with them and said that they did a lot of work for Provincial and Federal Candidates. A few days later I received a call from one of their associates named Derek and he walked me through their services. He convinced me over the course of a few calls to buy their "Mayoral Victory Package" which included automatic robocalls, polling using something called ITR and live voter contact calls. I received an invoice days later and paid the $20,000 package price. That was my biggest mistake. In retrospect, I should never have made such a payment without some sort of contract. After a career in business and in real estate, I never thought to ask for a contract that detailed the services that would be delivered, the terms, and other details.

Voter Contact Silence

Over the next few months, we heard back from Derek several times about how great things were going, he kept giving me and my manager advice on the campaign. This came in the form of meaningless slogans like "staying on point" and "hitting it hard". Years later, after speaking with people who know this Derek, I have come to find out that his actual campaign experience is very limited, as is that of all the staff at Prime Contact. We were lead to believe at the time that Derek had run hundreds of campaigns when in fact all he, and the staff at Prime Contact had been, is service providers to hundreds of campaigns. Again, in retrospect, his nonsensical advice should have been a warning that something was amiss.


Over 3 months after paying the $20,000 plus tax to Prime Contact, we got our first value service. The ITR poll which told us that we were significantly behind. The advantage of the ITR poll is that it also tells you which people gave which responses. We began canvassing for sign locations in early September by visiting the people who said they would vote for me and it was successful. Out of almost 1000 decided responses, approximately 220 people said they would vote for me which I was told was good and I should "hit it hard". Despite the early success, I was beginning to get skeptical about what I was paying for. Derek assured me that the live calls would soon begin and I would start seeing results.

Live Call Results

Like a good candidate, I followed the plan that my campaign manager had set for canvassing. I went every day, many times alone for 6 to 10 hours, all the while with the assurance that tens of thousands of calls were being made on my behalf and soon a flood of new supporters, sign locations and possibly volunteers would come my way. By the end of the first week of October, with less than 3 weeks to election day, I began to worry. I asked my manager where the results from the live voter contact calls were and why those signs weren't being put up, we were losing ground to our opponents. After some back and forth, we were told that our calls would begin that week. In the end, we received approximately 1800 records and 25 signs, 12 of which came back as unwanted. Derek called my manager a few days later and suggested we do some additional calls which we declined. On election day, we were supposed to receive 5,000 calls to supporters to encourage people to vote. Our campaign line never received a single call back or request for a ride. In the end, I had paid $22,600 for less than 1000 supporters being identified and approximately 20 signs. I never heard back from Derek after that day.

Post Election

For the candidates who may read this, and who have lost, you will know what I mean when I say that I felt deflated and depressed. After months of being the center of attention, or part of it, I was now a nobody again. A loser, I had been rejected by the people of my community. I began a short debrief with my team and my family and the first item that came up was these so called "professional" services I had paid for and whether I had truly received value for the cost. The first question my wife and CFO asked was to look at the contract. That was when I realized my mistake, there was no contract, just an invoice. I was encouraged by some to ask for a refund or pursue legal action, but I knew that without a contract, this was not an option.

A number of months later, in 2011, I had a meeting that was surprising and that lead me to more information than I wanted to know. The man who had won the election against me, asked to meet me for a coffee to talk. We had a great conversation and eventually that lead to my appointment to some committees and boards to advise the municipality. By early 2012, we had been out for dinner and visited with each others families and had truly become friends.

One day over a few drinks in the backyard in the summer of 2012, I finally had the courage to raise some issues around the campaign of 2010 with my friend and told him about my experience with this "professional campaign services" firm Prime Contact. He indicated that he also had a very negative experience with a firm he had used called Electright, which is a Conservative company that does calls for Stephen Harper and Tim Hudak and had been highly recommended to him. He said that the firm I had used, Prime Contact was a Liberal firm that does calls for McGuinty and Bob Rae. He confided with me that he knew in August that he was going to win when Electright had done an ITR poll for him. What surprised me at the time was that his numbers were almost exactly the same as the poll numbers I had received from Prime Contact in August 2010. I went back to review my files that night and realized they weren't just close, they were exactly the same, down to the tenth of a percentage point for all candidates.  The next day, I asked him if he had received a similar house by house report from his ITR as I had received and if he would mind sharing it with me. The response numbers were exactly the same, every single response was exactly the same. These two ITR polls that had supposedly been conducted two weeks apart got responses from the same exact phone numbers and the same exact responses for all the candidates and undecided voters. I realized right away that we had both been sold the same poll results. My only consolation was that my friend had paid significantly more for his than I had for mine. Over the next few weeks we also compared our live call results and realized they matched exactly, except for the signs that had been requested for each of us. I also found out that my old friend Derek had also been the client rep for Electright and had communicated with the other campaign as he had done for me.

Further Investigation

Being retired and having part time responsibilities has it's advantages, I have a lot of time on my hands and it drives my wife a little crazy at times. My friend who had won the election was a little upset about the results of our polling and calls but as the winner, was not as concerned as me to get to the bottom of this. I began looking in to both Prime Contact and Electright and here is what I have been able to find out.

- Electright and Prime Contact were both incorporated on the same day, in Ontario in early 2011, that's right, well AFTER they had done business with me and my friend.
- In speaking with a number of Liberal and Conservative campaigners, I found out that Prime Contact has a call centre and operations office in Hamilton
- Electright, the Conservative firm, does NOT have a call centre or any operations centre. Their phones are just VOIP forwarded numbers according to a friend in the telecom industry
- A number of campaigners have confirmed that Prime Contact and Electright are two fronts for the same "voter contact" centre. All campaigns that use either Electright or Prime Contact are getting the same service, from the same call centre, using the same database in Hamilton.
- Numerous other Canadian companies are resellers for Prime Contact, using the same call centres, the same software, the same databases, all in the Prime Contact headquarters.
- Virtual Townhalls, a product marketed by Prime Contact as their exclusive license, is in fact, just a Trademark name they use. Electright also sells "Virtual Townhalls". All other Canadian firms have to use the name Teleforum or Telephone Town Hall because Prime Contact (and by extension) Electright own the trademark for Virtual Townhall
- Neither Prime Contact nor Electright provide clients with a contract that protects campaigns and candidates from shady business like what occurred in my town
- From campaign expense reports that I have reviewed, there were at least 50 campaigns across Ontario that had competing campaigns using Prime Contact and Electright. Vaughan, Toronto, Hamilton, etc, etc. Were all these campaigns double billed for the same polling data, the same live call results, like we were?
- Numerous other resellers of Prime Contact and/or Electright exist across Ontario and Canada, including companies like Front Porch Strategies that did work in the Allison Redford election in Alberta.

UPDATE: I have received several emails from credible sources that tell me First Contact is NOT affiliated with Prime Contact

The lesson I learned at the end of all this is that candidates need to do their research. Even after everything I have found, my lawyer says there is nothing illegal with what these two companies that use the same operations office, software and databases did to me. Without a contract that would exclude that sort of thing, there are no grounds for legal action. My advice to candidates who receive these emails from so called "professional campaign services" firms is to make sure you get a contract, and ensure that you are not paying for data that your opponent is also paying for.

Federal Election Implications

The last part of my post is about the implications to the last federal election. My investigation also found that Electright and Prime Contact provided services to competing campaigns in dozens of ridings across Canada in 2011. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid by Liberal candidates to Prime Contact and hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid by Conservative candidates to Electright.

Does Stephen Harper know that a Liberal firm is doing his campaign calls and has his database? Does Justin Trudeau know that Electright is making calls and has access to liberal databases at Prime Contact offices? Do Tim Hudak and Kathleen Wynne know about the Prime Contact/Electright relationship? As my lawyer has confirmed, there is nothing illegal about what these two (or more) companies are doing, but the risk of allowing these private firms to mix Conservative and Liberal data, all in one office, is high in my opinion.

With potentially dozens of resellers all using Prime Contact's call centres and databases, including Electright, is it possible that this is the solution to the robocall mystery? Is the Derek that called me back in 2010 the real Pierre Poutine behind the voter suppression that confused tens of thousands of voters across Canada? Was it just a mistake, did Prime Contact call Liberal supporters by mistake with a suppression message, or did they just give the data to Electright. Those are questions for Elections officials, politicians and the RCMP to answer I suppose.