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The super PAC effect: Heitkamp calls on Berg to help phone solicitation by supporters

North Dakota U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp greets Deb Zillich of Dickinson at a Hotdish for Heidi event at the Heart River Retreat in Dickinson as Loren Myran of Taylor, right, and JoAn Tangen of Dickinson look on Friday evening.

If unlimited money and the super PACs that provide it are allowed to run free in North Dakota, the state's political climate can be ruined, Democrat candidates said Friday.

"I don't want to change North Dakota's whole political climate where it's all based on huge, multi-million dollar corporations and companies coming in and telling us -- and quite frankly, they frighten a lot of our elderly voting public," District 36 Rep. Shirley Meyer said at District 36 Democratic headquarters along with U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp.

Several North Dakotans have reported receiving a recorded "robocall" or a text message from an outside group urging them to vote for Senate candidate Rep. Rick Berg and not challenger Heitkamp. Meyer was on the receiving end.

"They're very intimidating," Meyer said of the robocall from Crossroads GPS, a Washington D.C.-based super PAC. "I know the political process. I know what's legal in North Dakota and what isn't legal."

With the election less than two weeks away, candidates are making a final push to convince voters they are the leaders their (potential) constituents need. But this year is the first presidential election after the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which allowed corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions as a First Amendment protected form of speech to super PACs, third-party groups that can be for or against a candidate or idea.

"We have no communication with or control over -- our campaign follows election regulations and we encourage others on both sides of the political debate to do the same," Berg campaign Communications Director Chris Van Guilder said.

Super PACs and candidates cannot directly communicate with each other, according to Federal Election Commission rules, but candidates can make public statements directed to super PACs.

"He may not have known this was going to happen, but now that he knows that it's happened, he can tell his allies -- and that's who these folks are, they're Congressman Berg's allies -- to stop it," Heitkamp said.

While telephone solicitation is not illegal in North Dakota, there must be a live person on the other end of the call, and not a recording, according to North Dakota Century Code. Recipients of the calls cannot be on the Federal Trade Commission do-not-call list.

"I figured we would see some of it," Heitkamp said of super PAC spending. "I never thought to the extent that we have. I mean, it has just been an explosion. It has been outrageous."

Meyer has filed a formal complaint against Crossroads GPS with the state's Attorney General's Office.

The Attorney General's Office has looked into Meyer's complaint, along with one that was received Oct. 8, and have determined that the calls were made by live operators who may have spoken in such a way that made callers think they were recordings, said Parrell Grossman, director of the Consumer Protection and Antitrust Division of the North Dakota Attorney General's Office.

"The North Dakota Attorney General's Office doesn't have that capability," he said of determining if a call is made by a live operator or a recording. "Unless we were to send a representative to the business (making the phone calls) at a time when the calls are conducted, we would not be able to determine whether the calls were made -- we would not be able to absolutely determine whether the calls are made via prerecorded message or a live call."

When entities have been called out on using recorded messages in the past, they own up to it, Grossman said. It would be highly unlikely for someone to lie about using recorded calls.

The fine for using robocalls is up to $7,000 per call, he said.

The call to Meyer was placed from an 855 area code number, which is a toll-free area code. In March, during the primary season, several North Dakota residents received robocalls from the 703 area code, which were suspected to be dialed at random.

William Woodworth of Bismarck filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission about the unsolicited text messages from Life and Marriage PAC on Friday.

"Many of these voters do not have a text message plan and were billed for receiving this unsolicited text message," he wrote in his complaint. "The individuals who received the text messages are rightly concerned about this breach of privacy of their personal cell phones, and I urge you to investigate this matter and take any necessary action to protect the rights of North Dakota voters."

Text messages are treated as live calls under current North Dakota law and are not illegal, Grossman said.

Heitkamp was also concerned about pro-Berg signs posted illegally on main thoroughfares in Fargo, which were placed there by It's Now Or Never Inc., a Las Vegas-based super PAC.

"Our volunteers are very passionate about making sure voters in North Dakota know that a vote for Heidi Heitkamp is a vote supporting President (Barack) Obama and (Nevada Sen.) Harry Reid, while a vote for Rick Berg is a vote supporting Mitt Romney," It's Now Or Never Inc. Executive Director Jason Smith wrote in an email to The Press. "Sometimes volunteers get too aggressive because they are so passionate. We are taking action to remove unauthorized signs where we can."

Fargo city officials told The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead that the city was responsible for the removal of the signs.

Last week, former North Dakota GOP Chairman Gary Emineth filed a lawsuit against the State of North Dakota to repeal 16.1-10-06, the portion of state law that prohibits electioneering on Election Day.

"To tear all these yard signs down, you can't tell anybody, encourage people to vote for a candidate on Election Day -- I think it's totally foolish," he told The Associated Press.

Meyer and Heitkamp are worried not about yard signs or television ads, but about groups of people practicing voter intimidation near polling places.

"When I heard about the lawsuit, to me, it wasn't about leaving yard signs up, it wasn't about that, it having a group of people outside a courthouse intimidating the people that are coming in to vote," Meyer said.

As of 5 p.m. Friday a call placed to Crossroads GPS was not returned.

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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