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Phoning It In: Attack in Indiana by New, Well-Funded Conservative Group

Conservative group's automated calls tar House candidate with voting to let unsavory material be sold to kids.

September 19, 2006

Modified: September 19, 2006

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Summary

An automated attack call claims Indiana House candidate Baron Hill "voted to allow the sale of a broad range of violent and sexually explicit materials to minors." That's an apparent reference to a vote Hill cast in 1999 against a Republican-sponsored measure to bar the sale of certain items to kids. It's also misleading.  Hill, along with a majority of Democrats and a significant number of House Republicans, voted to stick with existing law. Almost twice as many lawmakers opposed the bill as voted for it, with many making the argument that it was overly broad and a possible violation of the First Amendment.

The calls were sponsored by the conservative Economic Freedom Fund – an outside group wholly funded by Texas millionaire homebuilder Bob Perry.  Perry was the main backer of the 2004 campaign by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against John Kerry and he has already funded EFF, which was formed last month, at an even higher level – $5 million so far – than he funded the Swiftboaters. This indicates that the group could become a big player this fall. But it may have to alter its strategy in Indiana;  the attorney general there has sued EFF, alleging the calls violate state law.

Analysis

Automated "robocalls," which have no live person on the originating line, are often used to turn people out to vote; sometimes they're celebrity endorsements of a candidate. In this one, the automated caller claims he is working for "Data Research," then asks a number of leading questions about former Indiana Rep. Baron Hill, a Democrat who is running for his old seat. This particular kind of voter contact, an attack masquerading as a survey, is a dark variety sometimes known as a "push poll." Such calls are almost never captured on tape, but this time Indiana resident John Vanderlippe managed to hit the "record" button to grab the audio, which was first posted on the political blog  Taking Down Words on Sept 14.

Economic Freedom Fund: Automated Phone Call (excerpt)

Vanderlippe: Hello?
Voice: This is Data Research with a 45 second public service.  Are you registered to vote in Indiana?
Vanderlippe: What is this?
Voice: Please say "yes", "no" or "repeat" now.
...
Voice: Baron Hill voted to allow the sale of a broad range of violent and sexually explicit materials to minors.  Does knowing this make you less likely to vote for Baron Hill?
Vanderlippe: Who's behind this call?
Voice: This survey will end without a "yes," "no" or "repeat" response now.
Vanderlippe: Who's behind this call?
Voice: Thank you for your time and views.  This survey was conducted by the Economic Freedom Fund.  Goodbye.

Allowing the sale of porn to kids?

The call ends with the claim that  Hill voted "to allow the sale of a broad range of violent and sexually explicit materials to minors," and then asks "Does knowing this make you less likely to vote for Baron Hill?" EFF did not respond to our repeated phone and e-mail messages, so we were unable to confirm precisely which vote the call refers to.

However, it's almost certainly Hill's 1999 vote on a measure introduced by Illinois Republican Rep. Henry Hyde that would "restrict access to sexually explicit material" to children.  Hyde's proposal came under instant criticism from Democrats and Republicans who claimed the bill was too broad and could potentially make it illegal for children to read material such as the Holy Bible or a daily newspaper.  Critics also argued the amendment infringed on First Amendment rights and ran the risk of being declared unconstitutional. And some, like Republican Rep. James Rogan of California, just thought it was a bad idea:

Rogan: "I do not think that is an appropriate response from Congress. I do not think it will solve any of the troubles or the pathologies we are attempting to address. It is with that reluctance, Mr. Chairman, that I rise in opposition to the amendment."

The House voted on the measure as an amendment to a larger juvenile crime bill on June 16.  It failed on a vote of 146-282 with 92 Republicans and 189 Democrats opposed.  Hill joined staunch conservatives Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, currently the House Majority Leader, and then-GOP Rep., now MSNBC show host and political commentator Joe Scarborough in voting against it.

A June 2006 editorial in the Seymour, Indiana Tribune notes the same charge was lobbed by the NRCC against Hill in 2004:

Tribune: A little research on [the NRCC claim] shows that Hill voted in 1999 against an amendment proposed y Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., concerning "explicit sexual material" and "explicit violent material" as part of a juvenile justice bill.

All context considered, we judge the call to be misleading. Hill did not vote to allow the sale of sexual or violent material to minors. He and a large number of Republicans and Democrats merely voted against placing restrictions on existing law that stood a good chance of being struck down as unconstitutional by the courts.

"Baron Hill doesn't support this," said Hill spokeswoman Abby Curran, referring to the sale of sexual and violent material to kids. "He never has and never will."

Curran told FactCheck the calls were made throughout the district, with Hill himself receiving one at his home.

The Economic Freedom Fund

The call ends with the automated voice saying "this survey was conducted by the Economic Freedom Fund."  EFF's sole cash source, as of their most recent Federal Election Commission filing is Houston home builder Bob J. Perry.  Perry was the leading source of funding–$4.45 million-- for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that put up ads attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's Vietnam War record  in 2004, which we reviewed then.  Perry also paid $200,000 for an ad defending former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, which we reported on earlier this year. He and his wife, Doylene, have given $850,750 to political campaigns, party committees and political action committees since 2000, plus the contributions to Swift Boat and $3 million to the pro-Republican group Progress for America, according to the Center for Responsive Politics .

But Perry has already put more money into EFF than he gave to the Swift Boaters, indicating he wants to make it a force to be reckoned with in the midterm elections. According to Federal Election Commission filings the group has received $5 million dollars from Perry and has spent $501,352.30 as of Sept 8. All of the money has gone to Meridian Pacific, Inc. a campaign strategy firm that recently hired John Peschong, formerly a political director for the Republican National Committee.  EFF, with the help of Meridian Pacific, has funded a number of television advertisements and campaign mailers attacking House Democrats Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, John Marshall of Georgia, and Leonard Boswell of Iowa.

EFF isn't affiliated with the campaign of Republican incumbent Rep. Mike Sodrel, whose campaign manager, Cam Savage, said "We don't know anything about the group." Savage said he hadn't received one of the calls or listened to it on the web, and wouldn't comment on the content.

Illegal in Indiana?

The Indiana Attorney General's office sued EFF on Sept. 18 for initiating illegal, pre-recorded calls, and is seeking a preliminary injunction to force the group to discontinue them (which EFF says it has). Automated calls that are not preceded by a live operator or have not been authorized by the person receiving the call are against Indiana law.  Vanderlippe, the person who recorded this call, has sued companies in the past for such transgressions.

Savage, Sodrel's campaign manager, said that his boss has been attacked for a year-and-a-half by "a variety of liberal groups" in similar calls. "We think the powers that be should do anything in their power to stop" such calls, he said.

-by Emi Kolawole and Viveca Novak

Sources

"Pre-recorded or Automated Calls Must Meet State Requirements,"  News Release.  The Office of the Indiana Attorney General.  29 August 2006.

Editorial.  "A Bumpy Ride due in 9th," The Tribune (Seymour, Indiana).  12 June 2006.

"House Bill Sex Provision Criticized," The Associated Press.  11 June 1999.