After a conversation with Sen. Stacey Campfield, District Attorney General Randy Nichols said Wednesday he is asking the TBI to proceed with an investigation into whether state anti-harassment laws were violated by automated calls to voters asking their opinion of the senator.
Campfield told Nichols, according to interviews with both men, that he believes the calls were intended to make people mad at him and that a possible source of the calls was Ben Farmer, who owns Cyragon LLC, a political consulting company that has been paid $7,000 by the campaign of Richard Briggs, an announced opponent to Campfield in the 2014 Republican primary.
Briggs said he had nothing to do with the “robo poll” made late last month. Farmer has acted as a consultant to his campaign, he said.
Nichols said that preliminary inquires left it apparent that some people receiving the calls “felt they were harassed” and “we’re going to go a little deeper into it to see if we can determine who caused the calls to be made.”
Some people reported receiving repeated call backs – as many as 37 – and Campfield contends the calls appeared programmed to keep calling back the same number until the respondent gave an unfavorable opinion of Campfield.
Byron Dodson, Campfield’s executive assistant at the state Senate, said his Nashville office logged 53 calls from Knoxvillians angry over receiving repeated calls from “Citizen Opinion Research” and who blamed Campfield for them. One was a woman having labor pains that evening who had twins the next day, he said.
The senator called each person who complained to say he was not responsible and then contacted the TBI, which in turn asked Nichols for a decision on whether to conduct an investigation.
Nichols said he had never before heard of a poll being conducted for the purpose of making people angry at a politician they believed responsible for the calling.
“It’s a novel concept,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody’s committed a crime or not.”
The first step, the district attorney said, is to determine who started the calls. While saying he would not get into details of what the TBI would do, Nichols said contacting Farmer “would be a logical thing” since his name has come up.
Briggs, a physician and Knox County commissioner, said he had nothing to do with the “robo poll” conducted late last month. Briggs’ first campaign finance disclosure, filed Tuesday, shows he raised more than $51,000 and had a balance of $43,704 after deducting expenses, almost all in payments to Cyragon.
Campfield said he understood Farmer was Briggs’ campaign manager. Briggs said that was not the case, though Farmer has consulted with him on campaign matters though his primary consultant — drafter of a campaign strategy plan — has been veteran political adviser Tom Ingram
The disclosure form says the payments were for “professional services.” Briggs said in an interview he had not done any polling, but that Farmer has helped him with fundraising and Farmer’s wife designed “push cards” giving information about the candidate that can be handed out to voters.
Farmer did not respond to repeated phone calls and email messages from a reporter seeking comment.
Cyragon in the past has conducted frequent polls for Knoxville Focus, an online publication, and Fountain City Focus, a weekly community newspaper. Steve Hunley, who edits the publication, also did not return a reporter’s calls. But Campfield and Briggs both said they have talked with Hunley and Focus editor adamantly denied involvement.
“There’s a short list of people who would benefit from doing this type of call,” said Campfield. “At the top would have to be my political opponent… I’m not going to say he’s guilty. I’m just going to say it’s pointing in one direction.”
Briggs said he does not know where the calls originated and had not asked Farmer about them. He also questioned the need for devoting TBI resources to an investigation “when they need to be devoting their resources to the fighting of crime for the people of Tennessee and not to politicians and politics.”
“I think its just a waste of time and taxpayer money for the TBI to get involved,” he said.