- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - An Atlanta-based company hired by the North Dakota Farm Bureau was fined $500 Wednesday for making illegal automated calls to residents asking their opinions of politicians vying to become state Agriculture Commissioner, the attorney general’s office said

Concentric Direct LLC was fined for making robo-calls, which are illegal in North Dakota whether political or not, said Parrell Grossman, director of the attorney general’s consumer protection division.

Grossman said he called the Farm Bureau Wednesday after learning of the calls from a resident and it put Concentric Direct in contact with him. He said the company was unaware of North Dakota’s law and agreed to stop making calls and accept the fine.

Grossman said the company made approximately 300 calls before they stopped the survey, which asked people their opinions of three candidates for Agriculture Commissioner. Pete Hanebutt, the director of public policy at the Farm Bureau, said they won’t use any of the results that were collected.

Hanebutt said Concentric Direct had assured the organization it would do things properly. Grossman said the Farm Bureau won’t be fined.

“It’s upsetting for us as an organization that our outside contractor didn’t do his due diligence,” Hanebutt said.

The fine was announced just before the weekend state convention of the North Dakota Republican party, where delegates on Sunday will endorse either incumbent Doug Goehring or challenger Judy Estenson for agriculture commissioner.

The Farm Bureau has publicly supported Estenson, who’s a nurse and farmer from Warwick, this election season although Goehring is a former vice president of the bureau.

Hanebutt said a difference in policy issues between the commissioner and the bureau led to its support of Estenson.

The eventual Republican nominee will face Ryan Taylor, a rancher and former Democratic state Senate leader from Towner, this fall.

Grossman said part of the calls this week asked residents questions about Commissioner Goehring and from what he understood those questions were primarily in a negative context.

Hanebutt said that wasn’t the intent of the poll and they had only hoped to gauge the likelihood of each candidate winning election in the fall.

Wednesday evening, Goehring’s campaign sent out a release in response to the robo-calls.

“These calls are just another example of the mean spirited and personal attacks North Dakota Farm Bureau has employed in their campaign to unseat Commissioner Goehring because of their policy differences,” said Jerry Klein, Goehring’s campaign spokesman, in the release.

Grossman said the context of the poll was not important to the office and their main concern was the robo-calls themselves.

“Every political season we have illegal robo-calls that occur,” he said.

He said the fine to Concentric Direct is a one-time fee, but the company would face up to $1,000 per violation if they break the law again.

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