AG: Polling firm to pay NH $20K over push poll

By Norma Love
Associated Press Writer / October 15, 2010

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CONCORD, N.H.—An Idaho company accused of conducting polling that aimed to spread negative information about Republican Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte has agreed to pay New Hampshire $20,000 for violating the state's push polling law, the attorney general's office said Friday.

Attorney General Michael Delaney said Mountain West Research Center of Pocatello, Idaho, made the calls to 529 homes July 19-21. Delaney said the company voluntarily quit once questions were raised about the poll.

Push polling is not illegal in New Hampshire, but pollsters must take certain steps to comply with the law or face civil fines or up to a year in jail.

The state Republican Party filed a complaint that the poll questions were designed to elicit a negative response about Ayotte and accused Democratic U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes of being behind the poll. Hodes was unopposed in his party's U.S. Senate primary, but began campaigning against Ayotte -- the front-runner in the GOP contest -- before she won her nomination.

At the time, the Hodes campaign said it only conducted market research and would not say if it paid for the poll.

On Friday, Hodes spokesman Mark Bergman confirmed Mountain West was working for the campaign, but said the campaign doesn't conduct push polls. Bergman said Hodes refused to pay for the survey when he learned it did not adhere to New Hampshire law.

"We were conducting a market research survey and we expected all vendors to follow applicable New Hampshire laws," Bergman said. "Mountain West is no longer affiliated in any way with our campaign."

The Ayotte campaign called the acknowledgment "a new low" for Hodes.

"New Hampshire voters want a race that's based on the issues, not on Paul Hodes' false personal attacks," campaign manager Brooks Kochvar said in a statement Friday.

The complaint said the phone calls asked questions about Ayotte designed to elicit a negative response.

For example, the callers asked if voters would be more or less likely to vote for Ayotte if they knew she ignored or failed to pursue a now-closed New Hampshire mortgage firm at the center of a Ponzi scheme when she was attorney general. Hodes has run ads hammering at Ayotte for not pursing the case.

Ayotte was attorney general when complaints surfaced about the mortgage firm now accused of swindling investors out of millions of dollars. But under state law, the complaints were sent to the state banking department, which has jurisdiction over such matters. Delaney issued a report in May finding fault with his office, the Banking Department and Bureau of Securities Regulation for not following through on complaints about the mortgage firm.

New Hampshire push polling law says that, under certain conditions, poll questions about an opposing candidate that touch on the candidate's character, status or political stance or record amount to "push polling," a negative campaign technique.

Pollsters can comply with New Hampshire's push polling law by saying one of three things: that the call is on behalf of a candidate, in support of a candidate or against a candidate. They must name the candidate and provide the phone number for the company conducting the poll.

The settlement did not specify how Mountain West violated the law, but the Republican Party's complaint said Mountain West refused to identify the campaign sponsoring the calls.

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