Tories may have broken 2011 election rules with US Republican campaigners in Ontario

Published in the Vancouver Observer | April 9, 2012 | Circulation: 150,000 unique monthly readers

Re-published in the Huffington Post Canada | April 10, 2012 | Circulation: 1.9 million unique monthly visitors

In at least two Conservative-won ridings with reported election irregularities, Front Porch Strategies had US staff on the ground – possibly against Elections Canada rules barring foreign campaigning.

In the wake of the “robocall” voter suppression scandal, the Republican-tied U.S. firm hired by 14 Conservative campaigns admitted on Friday to having had U.S. staff working “in the trenches” during the 2011 elections, in an apparent violation of the Canada Election Act which bars foreign political involvement.

Americans PJ Wenzel and Matthew Parker — director and CEO of Front Porch Strategies, respectively – participated directly in at least two Canadian Conservative campaigns, according to social media updates and a photograph from the successful election campaigns of associate defence minister Julian Fantino and MP Rick Dykstra, immigration minister Jason Kenney’s parliamentary secretary.

The revelations contradict Conservative party claims that Front Porch Strategies’ only role during the election was to conduct telephone town halls.

Republican strategists helping Conservatives’ campaign

“Matt and PJ headed to Toronto tomorrow to campaign for Conservative Candidates!” Front Porch Strategies posted on their official Facebook page on April 18, 2011. “Nothing like getting in the trenches with terrific people who are going to make a difference once elected.”

The next day, Front Porch’s Facebook page featured a photograph of Parker, telephone in hand, as he looked over what appears to be a voter contact list and a poster stating: “Election day is Monday, May 2. YOU CAN VOTE NOW.”

Below the photo was the caption: “Matt lending a hand for MP Fantino here in the greater Toronto area (GTA),” followed by a Front Porch Strategies comment three days later: “We need to get VoIP [Voice Over Internet Protocol] phones up there… dialing numbers is so ‘old-fashioned’…. we need to get them the ’21st Century Technology.’”

On April 20, a Twitter comment from the firm’s account, @FPStrategies, announced, “Knocking doors for MP Rick Dykstra. People don’t like liberals here!”

Although Front Porch has not been linked to any illegal phone calls or robocalls made in the last election, citizens in both Fantino and Dykstra’s ridings have reported irregularities in the campaigns. Those allegations include reported misleading calls in Dykstra’s riding (St. Catherines). Although Front Porch volunteered and made phone calls for Fantino in hopes of winning a contract, he did not hire them.

Under the Canada Elections Act section 331 (Non-interference by Foreigners), it is illegal for a non-resident to directly participate in election campaigns in Canada:

“No person who does not reside in Canada shall, during an election period, in any way induce electors to vote or refrain from voting or vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate unless the person is (a) a Canadian citizen; or (b) a permanent resident.”

If the violation was intentional, the offence carries a summary conviction, according to the Act.

Dykstra, Fantino, or Parker did not reply to phone calls and emails from The Vancouver Observer. But the company’s Canadian liaison responded that Wenzel and Parker’s involvement was limited to campaign volunteering on only two days during the election.

“They were in Ontario for a day and a half (in April), for the purpose of acquiring new clients,” political consultant Jim Ross told the Vancouver Observer. “They knocked on doors for roughly an hour with Rick, traditional canvassing to identify support. While waiting for a delayed meeting they made roughly 30 minutes worth of phone calls for Minister Fantino, again to identify support.

“Other than teleforums, brief incidental volunteerism as described above over the course of a day and a half that was mostly spent trying to acquire new clients. There was no other involvement.”

Social media announcements from Front Porch Strategies suggest otherwise, however.

U.S. strategists “on the front lines” during Canada’s election day

“Front Porch is on the front lines as Conservatives are taking over Canadian Parliament!” Front Porch’s Twitter feed stated on election day, May 2.

Ross insisted Wenzel and Parker were not in the country beyond their April 19-20 visit, despite the May 2 tweet about being on the “front lines.”

“It’s not true. I’m not sure why anyone would have thought that,” Ross said. “We provided telephone town halls to 14 winning Conservative candidates in and preceding the 2011 election.

“We provided no unrelated services.”

All 14 Conservative campaigns that hired Front Porch Strategies – based in Columbus, Ohio – emerged winners in the election.

Front Porch Strategies describes itself as a “voter contact and constituency outreach” firm, offering teleforums, robocalling and other services.

Strong Republican ties 

The company and its staff have numerous ties to Republican election campaigns, as well as Evangelical Christian groups and anti-abortion campaigns in the U.S.

The firm boasts a number of GOP congressional election campaigns under its belt.

According to his Front Porch bio, Parker, a long-time Republican operative, is the former chair of the Belmont County, Ohio Republican Party. Wenzel served on Ohio’s Republican central committee, as well as for the national Republican campaigns for former U.S. president George W. Bush, U.S. Speaker John Boehner, U.S. Senator Rob Portman, Steve Poizner for Governor, and Senator Jim DeMint.

Wenzel served on a major Ohio GOP committee while it was chaired by Bernadette Noe, who with her husband Tom Noe, were top donors to the party. The Noe couple also attended Wenzel’s wedding.

Front Porch Strategies founder Matthew Parker: a Christian conservative 

As well as being a well-connected Republican, Parker is a devout Christian: he states that “homosexuality is sin” and considers abortion “the most important issue facing government today.”

On his personal Tumblr blog, Parker Ponders, he writes:

“I get to work on campaigns for a living—another blessing from God,” Parker wrote. “Last year, I was so proud to work for many new pro-life legislators.

“Many of these legislators co-sponsored HB 125, aka The Heartbeat Bill. This bill will prohibit abortions after a heartbeat is detected. This bill will eliminate over 90% of abortions in Ohio.”

In that post, he writes that supporting reproductive rights is unbiblical.

“I firmly believe the Word of God backs me up on this,” Parker wrote. “God is 100% pro-life.”

Front Porch Strategies denies illegal calls

According to a CBC News source connected to Front Porch Strategies, the company masked the phone calls it made during its 14 Canadian election campaigns to appear as if the numbers were from the local Conservative campaign headquarters and not Ohio.

When asked about the robocall voter suppression scandal, Ross told the Vancouver Observer that illegal calls were “malicious and illegal,” adding that wider allegations “sound like errors interpreted as intentional misdirection.”

He denied that Front Porch Strategies were involved in any way.

“We are in the business of democracy, and we highly value the right of each person to vote for the candidate of their choice without interference,” he said.

“Obviously something malicious and illegal happened in Guelph, when it is determined who did that, they should and presumably will be prosecuted.”

A violation of Section 331 of the Canada Elections Act – if found to be intentional – carries a “$2,000 fine, six month imprisonment, or both,” according to the Act.

Elections Canada told the Vancouver Observer it could not comment directly on this case, but said that the Commissioner of Elections could proceed with an investigation if there were a formal complaint filed.

“I can’t say whether something’s against the Act myself,” said Elections Canada spokesperson Diane Benson. “It’s always going to depend on the circumstances of what actually happened.

“The Office of the Commissioner can receive complaints . . . All complaints are reviewed, they’re always looked at. It depends on the evidence if it goes to investigation.”

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