Phone calls to Lincoln County voters with a recorded message that appears intended to discredit a North Carolina congressman are drawing complaints and a possible state investigation this week, after the Lincoln Times-News brought the calls to the attention of the N.C. Department of Justice.
With six candidates competing for the stateâ€™s 10th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives this year, some aggressive campaigning is hardly a surprise. But DOJ spokesperson Noelle Talley said Monday the anonymous robo-calls appear to cross the line and be illegal.
Whoâ€™s behind the calls is unclear. The Times-News contacted all six campaigns on Tuesday, with each denying responsibility for the calls criticizing U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenryâ€™s fitness for office based on insinuations about his moral character.
Several citizens have talked with the Times-News about the calls, some expressing disgust. Most of the call recipients appear to be Republicans, but itâ€™s unclear whether the smear effort was specifically targeting those expected to participate in the May 8 GOP primary.
Tom Hawk of Lincolnton, who describes himself as a McHenry supporter, contacted the newspaper about the situation by email over the weekend.
â€œI believe you will agree with me that this type of call has no place in our political campaigning efforts,â€ Hawk said. â€œThe call never identified who was calling or who was funding the effort. This moves the call from annoying into the illegal category.â€
According to Hawk and others, the recorded caller identified herself only by a womanâ€™s first name and said she was a Republican married to an unaffiliated voter. She said she and her husband agreed that it would be a mistake to re-elect McHenry, then said wasnâ€™t â€œone of us.â€ The caller then made references to politicians involved in past scandals to imply that McHenry was hiding aspects of his personal conduct from voters.
Among the campaigns denying any ties to the calls this week was McHenryâ€™s own. Itâ€™s not unheard of for candidates to engage in over-the-top dirty tricks targeting themselves in order to make it appear that their opponents are using dirty tricks.
But McHenry spokesperson Ryan Minto told the Times-News on Tuesday that this wasnâ€™t the case in this situation. He said the congressmanâ€™s office was already aware of the robo-calls, having received some complaints from supporters. Minto declined to address the content of the calls further.
Don Peterson of Cramerton, one of two Republicans facing McHenry in the May 8 primary, communicated with the Times-News via email on Tuesday. Asked whether his campaign was behind the calls, whether he had any comment on this type of activity and whether he had any comment on the content of the calls, Petersonâ€™s response was concise and consistent: â€œ1) No, 2) no and 3) no.â€
The other Republican in the race, Denver journalist Ken Fortenberry, spoke with the Times-News by phone on Tuesday and was equally clear.
â€œWe didnâ€™t do it,â€ Fortenberry said. He then speculated about who might be behind the robo-calls. â€œThere are people, not only from this district, but all over who want to see McHenry gone,â€ Fortenberry claimed.
With McHenry an incumbent who has won easy re-election over all challengers in recent years, his Democratic opponents would also stand to benefit from seeing him lose in the primary or at least emerge seriously wounded.
The phone calls have been traced to an Asheville number and two of the three Democratic candidates in the race are fixtures of Asheville politics, although anyone could have set up an Asheville number to launch the attack calls.
Kendra Turner, spokesperson for the congressional campaign of Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, strongly condemned the calls.
â€œThis is the first Iâ€™ve heard of it,â€ she told the Times-News. â€œThatâ€™s not in keeping with our approach.â€ Saying Bellamyâ€™s campaign was focused on promoting her as a candidate and not negative attacks, Turner also criticized the tactics used in the calls.
â€œAnonymous calls are not part of our plan and not something we condone,â€ Turner said.
A similar denial and condemnation came from the campaign of N.C. Rep. Patsy Keever of Asheville, through her communications director, Bruce Mulkey.
â€œThe first time Keever for Congress campaign heard of the robo-calls in question was when you called our office,â€ Mulkey wrote in an email on Tuesday. â€œDuring her entire time in elected office, Patsy Keever has denounced negative campaigning, and this campaign will never resort to such despicable tactics.
â€œPatsy Keever will run on the issues that are affecting the people of North Carolina. She understands that the citizens of the 10th Congressional District want a representative who will bring people together to find real solutions to real problems.â€
â€œSince no one involved in this campaign has heard the call, we cannot comment on its message,â€ Mulkey added.
The only non-Asheville Democrat in the race, Timothy Murphy of Rutherfordton, also denied involvement in the calls.
â€œMy campaign is not engaging in any telemarketing whatsoever at the moment,â€ he told the Times-News during a phone conversation on Tuesday.
â€œI generally disagree with robo-calls, but recognize the realities of electioneering. I hope to never be involved in it, but you can never say never.â€
Talley at the Justice Department said the penalties for whoever is behind the calls could be steep fines. She pointed to a successful effort by her boss, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, to prosecute those involved in a similar campaign directed at presidential candidates during the 2008 election cycle, with penalties assessed for each call made to a North Carolina home.
She said Cooper has also encouraged the Legislature and Congress to place political robo-calls under the aegis of the Do Not Call registry, but so far this has not happened.
Even so, political calls that donâ€™t clearly and completely identify the caller and whose campaign they work for are in violation of state statutes. Talley encourages citizens who received the calls and others like them to contact the DOJ through its hot line, 1-877-5-NO-SCAM, or by filing an online complaint at www.ncdoj.gov and linking to â€œStop Telemarketers.â€
While the source of the calls remains unclear, one candidate offered a theory that it could be part of an effort from a national organization that has previously attacked McHenry and other members of Congress with allegations similar to those in the robo-calls.
The organization, Republican for Family Values, is based in Illinois and operates a website www.rffv.org, which includes a call for McHenry to deny charges about his personal behavior. The siteâ€™s owner did not immediately respond to a Times-News email asking whether he was behind the calls or knew who was.