The head of a Knoxville political consulting firm has acknowledged to the TBI responsibility for an automated telephone survey asking voter opinions of state Sen. Stacey Campfield while declaring there was no intention of harassing those getting the calls or attacking Campfield, his attorney said Monday.
Ben Farmer, owner of Cyragon, LLC, spoke “in a very lengthy interview” to a TBI investigator last week and explained that the survey was a matter of “internal testing” of the firm’s surveying system that went awry through a “computer glitch” that caused many of the 2,000 targeted voters to receive multiple calls, said G. Turner Howard III, Farmer’s attorney.
The TBI has been investigating the “robo poll” at the request of District Attorney General Randy Nichols in response to an initial request to the TBI from Campfield. A TBI spokeswoman said Monday that the agency has not turned over its final report to Nichols and declined further comment because the matter is part of “an ongoing investigation.”
Campfield said Howard’s explanation for the calls was “ridiculous” and that Farmer’s acknowledgment indicated political motives. Farmer is a supporter of Richard Briggs, a Knox County commissioner and physician who has declared himself an opponent to Campfield in the 2014 Republican primary. Briggs’ first campaign financial disclosure shows $7,000 in payments to Cyragon.
Nichols said he was aware that Farmer had been interviewed and will review all information from the TBI before making a decision on whether criminal charges are warranted as a violation of the state’s anti-harassment law, which says that multiple phone calls can be a crime if intentionally made “in an offensively repetitious manner, or without a legitimate purpose of communication, and by this action knowingly annoys or alarms the recipient.”
Some people apparently received repeated calls – the highest number reported was 37 – over a period of about two hours.
Campfield says call recipients told him and his staff that it appeared anyone giving a favorable opinion of the Republican senator received repeated callbacks until he or she gave a response showing an unfavorable opinion. The senator also said that others blamed him for the calls and contacted him to complain.
Howard said that was not the case.
“It was conducted as a random survey for the purpose of internal education,” said Howard, who has advised his client, Farmer, not to speak directly to the media. The interview with a TBI agent was conducted in his office, he said.
Howard said Campfield’s name was chosen simply because he was well known in Knox County. The objective of the internal “testing” was to determine the impact of a “no opinion” option among persons surveyed, he said. That was one of five options presented to persons receiving the call, who were asked to respond by pushing a phone pad number corresponding to their opinion of Campfield.
“Unfortunately, there was a computer glitch,” he said. “It was a complete mistake… As soon as Mr. Farmer found out about it, he cut it off.”
“Certainly, there was no intention to malign him (Campfield) or to stir up any kind of animosity toward him,” said Howard. “It was strictly a Cyragon-engendered testing of the validity of the no-opinion-at-all part of the surveying.”
Briggs, who did not return a reporter’s call on Monday, has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the “robo poll.” Howard said that he could confirm, through Farmer, that Briggs “no involvement or information whatsoever” about the survey.
Campfield expressed disbelief about such a statement.
“”Oh, come on, now,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to think that Farmer, who has taken almost every single dollar that Briggs has spent, was not working on his behalf or that he didn’t at least know about it…. Ben Farmer does not work for free. If he was doing it, he was being paid for doing it.”
Briggs’ initial campaign financial disclosure shows all but about $400 of expenditures going to Cyragon. As originally filed, the disclosure described the payments as being simply for “professional services.” Briggs filed an amendment last week giving detailed descriptions for each payment – down to 61 cents for postage in one case. Most are for placement of advertising or printing of cards and yard signs.
Campfield said he has been told that Farmer previously presented himself as Briggs’ campaign manager. Briggs says that he is not, though Farmer is a supporter and that he has consulted with him on political matters – though his primary consultant is Tom Ingram, a veteran Republican political operative. Briggs said that the campaign payments to Cyragon were handled by Farmer’s wife, who lined up printing and purchases of various campaign materials