Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Beware of robo calls and sources

The dirty tricks during an election season sometimes include robo calls -- those automated telephone messages used sometimes by ethically-challenged politicians or their surrogates to inject misleading information that smear a candidate. We've seen this sort of misinformation technique deployed previously in Kentucky -- an attack that eventually received national attention.

Here in Atlanta, we have a new wrinkle on the robo call tactic (with emphasis)

Automated telephone calls that criticize U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia for backing Hillary Clinton for president were placed by the co-founder of an Atlanta phone-banking firm who said he dislikes the longtime congressman.
The man behind the robo calls, John Garst, operates a company that includes "several top Georgia Republicans and at least two Democrats."

[Keep reading... more after the jump.]
John Garst told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday that neither Clinton's campaign nor that of her top opponent for the Democratic nomination, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, had anything to do with the calls....

...The so-called "robo call" urges listeners to call Lewis' Atlanta office and tell him to support fellow African-American Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.

..."I read a news story off the Drudge Report about John Lewis, who is my congressman, talking in essence that he didn't really care what his constituents thought about who he should support as president," Garst said. "He was going to do what he felt he should do."

That, Garst said, "is the way he's run the 5th District for 22 years he's been in office. I looked at this as an opportunity to point out to people, in mass, I disagree with him politically."

Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, said the attack won't change his allegiance.

"It's unthinkable," Lewis said. "You make a commitment; you keep that commitment."

Garst said the calls went out to 51,000 numbers and about two-thirds were successful. It is his voice on the call, he said.

In the calls, Garst did not identify himself. But he said anyone with caller identification could have seen where the calls originated and that he made no effort "to block that or shield that."

If someone didn't have caller ID, however, they wouldn't have known.

"I suppose that is technically possible," Garst said.

FCC rules require that automated calls "at the beginning of the message, state clearly the identity of the business, individual or other entity that is responsible for initiating the call."

In the call, Garst urges listeners to call Lewis' Atlanta office and tell him to support fellow African-American Obama. "Don't be afraid to call, and remember, King Day is on Jan. 21 this year. And we shouldn't have a congressman in King's own home city refusing to endorse a member of the Black Caucus."

Garst co-founded Rosetta Stone Communications in 1997 with Steven Schultz. The firm offers political consulting, advertising, polling and other services.

Lewis said it's good that Garst has taken responsibility for the call.

"But I think he does the Obama campaign and Mr. Obama and all the people who support him a disservice," Lewis said.

As for Garst's claims that he isn't responsive to his constituents, Lewis said it's not true.

"I do care what the people in the district think," Lewis said. "That's why I spend so much time in the district. As a representative in a country such as ours, you have to lead. And you have to mold and shape opinions and get people to follow."

Lewis said his Atlanta office received more than 100 calls from people who received the call.

John Thigpen of Decatur was one who received the call. He was not happy about it.

"I thought the entire message was inappropriate. I also am firmly against all autodialed, prerecorded calls for any purpose," Thigpen said.

The Obama campaign earlier in the day disavowed the calls.

"These kinds of attacks are misleading and divisive, and the Obama campaign has nothing to do with them," Obama's Georgia director Eureka Gilkey said. "Congressman John Lewis is a hero whose courage and sacrifice have made this country more equal and more just, and all Americans owe him a debt of gratitude."

As of Tuesday evening the campaign was preparing a letter to Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker asking him to investigate.

The Clinton campaign declined to comment.

Garst said Tuesday that it wasn't his intention to be racially divisive. He said he got the idea for the call before the recent contretemps.

"I don't really know how to respond to that," Garst said. "The climate when I had this idea really wasn't what it was today."

He said had he realized how bad the situation had gotten he wouldn't have placed the calls.

Rosetta Stone Communications offers a variety of political campaign consulting, according to its Web site,

According to the Georgia Ethics Commission, the firm has been paid nearly $370,000 since 2006 by candidates for state office in Georgia, including Gov. Sonny Perdue and Secretary of State Karen Handel, both of whom are Republicans. In fact, of the $370,000, more than $350,000 was paid by Republican candidates.

Schultz himself ran for the Georgia Legislature as a Republican in 2006.

One of the firm's clients is Rep. Jill Chambers, (R-Dunwoody). She said Rosetta Stone Communications provides marketing and consulting.
For Garst to say his "intention" was not racially-motivated makes me laugh at his lame excuse. His automated message, "[A] congressman in King's own home city refusing to endorse a member of the Black Caucus" introduced race into the equation. I don't know if Garst is a racist but his messaging strategy insidiously plays the race card. His denial not only rings false but calls his integrity into question.

Having originated from a Repub-leaning political operative in such a disingenuous, deceptive manner should trigger further scrutiny into what motivated Garst beyond his stated dislike of Lewis and the congressman's endorsement of Clinton. I highly doubt that he plans to vote and support Obama in the primary or the general election if Barack wins the Democratic nomination. Do you think Garst will vote Democratic? I don't.

In short, John Garst is full of shit, his tactics questionable, and his animosity toward John Lewis (D-GA) unwarranted. Perhaps he suffers from Clinton Derangement Syndrome. I dunno but I hope Georgia AG Thurber investigates the matter thoroughly. Good for the Obama campaign for not allowing these kind of attacks against Lewis to go unanswered.

Keep in mind as the election season heats up and we head to the polls, Repubs -- famous for disinformation and "whisper" campaigns -- have an axe to grind and propaganda to spread. Fronting robo calls that appear to originate from Democratic sources isn't entirely out of the realm of possibility. Don't be surprised. Question everything.

For inquiring minds, the Rosetta Stone Communications website is here. Co-founder Steve Schultz here.