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Polling firm will pay to settle complaint over pre-recorded calls for N.D. conservation fund

BISMARCK - A Nevada polling firm that made pre-recorded phone calls to North Dakotans on behalf of supporters of a proposed conservation fund has agreed to pay $2,000 to settle a complaint that it violated the state's "do not call" law. Attorney ...

 

 

BISMARCK – A Nevada polling firm that made pre-recorded phone calls to North Dakotans on behalf of supporters of a proposed conservation fund has agreed to pay $2,000 to settle a complaint that it violated the state’s “do not call” law.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem brought the complaint in Burleigh County District Court against Las Vegas-based Campaign Communications Solutions Inc., doing business as Stones’ Phones.

According to court documents, Stenehjem’s office received complaints alleging that the Democratic polling firm made pre-recorded calls on behalf of North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife & Parks, the group pushing Measure 5 on the Nov. 4 ballot. If approved, the constitutional amendment would establish a fund and trust that would receive 5 percent of the state’s share of oil extraction tax revenue for the next 25 years.

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Carmen Miller, a spokeswoman for the measure’s backers and director of public policy at Ducks Unlimited’s regional office in Bismarck, said the automated calls were made Sept. 24 to invite members of five conservation groups backing the measure to participate in an hourlong “telephone town hall” meeting in which they could hear information and ask questions about the measure.

“It’s a common engagement tool that’s used all over the country,” she said, adding, “We’re very aware that you can’t make automated calls except to members.”

North Dakota law requires most automated, pre-recorded calls, or “robocalls,” to be preceded by a live operator who must get consent from the person called. However, there’s an exception if the person called is in a “current business relationship” with the caller – for example, a doctor or dentist using automated calls to remind patients of appointments, said Parrell Grossman, director of the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division.

Grossman said “maybe a half-dozen” people complained that they received the automated calls Sept. 24 but didn’t consider themselves a member of one of the five conservation groups, which Miller identified as Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society.

Stenehjem also received one of the calls, but Grossman said the matter was already under investigation before he learned of that call.

Miller said Ducks Unlimited’s records showed that Stenehjem or his wife had attended DU events three years in a row, “so to us, they were members.”

Grossman said the law’s exception is “an area subject to some interpretation, but we kind of relied on individuals saying, ‘I don’t consider myself a member.’ ”

Stones’ Phones admitted no liability or wrongdoing in the agreement filed in court Wednesday. Grossman said the agreement speaks for itself.

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“We believe that some of the robocalls were in violation of the law,” he said.

A message left for Stones’ Phones partners Marty Stone and Paul Stone was not returned Thursday.

Jon Godfread, spokesman for the Measure 5 opposition group North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, criticized the robocalls as another example of measure backers not following state law. He noted that supporters’ first attempt to get the measure on the ballot in 2012 was derailed by phony signatures collected by hired petition circulators, and that signature gatherers were accused of being too close to polling places in Jamestown during the June 10 election.

“It’s a real prime example of what happens when you have an out-of-state firm led by out-of-state groups trying to run an election in North Dakota,” he said.

Miller took exception to the characterization, noting that Ducks Unlimited has about 50 employees and 7,000 members in North Dakota.

“Really, what we have here is a disagreement about what constitutes a member, and we’re not going to fight about it. We’re going to be respectful of the attorney general’s interpretation of this,” she said.

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