Valero paid for smear campaign, survey attorney claims it was not a “push poll”

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald
[Editor:  Download City Attorney’s Oct. 5 letter here.  – R.S.]

Valero refinery sponsored survey calls, Benicia City Attorney says

By John Glidden, October 5, 2018 at 5:32 pm

BENICIA — The mystery of who sponsored a poll to survey Benicia residents about the upcoming City Council election has been solved.

Officials with the Valero Benicia Refinery confirmed to Benicia City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin on Thursday that Valero authorized the polling.

Mc Laughlin revealed the information in a formal letter she sent the Los Angeles-based Kaufman Legal Group. A copy of Mc Laughlin’s letter was provided to this newspaper.

Valero Benicia Refinery General Manager Don Wilson couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.

Mc Laughlin was ultimately responding to a letter Kaufman attorney Gary S. Winuk sent the city on Monday defending Research America, Inc. and EMC Research.

A representative from Research America, a data collection company, previously confirmed to the Times-Herald that the firm was hired to gather polling information for EMC.

Contacted by phone on Friday afternoon, Winuk didn’t want to confirm if Kaufman is representing both Research America and EMC Research.

“I don’t have anything to say about it,” Winuk said before abruptly hanging up the phone.

Several Benicia residents, including Vice Mayor Steve Young, said they received a phone call from a group — later identified as Research America, Inc. — asking to conduct a survey about the City Council, senatorial and gubernatorial contests.

However, Young, said that most of the questions centered on Benicia City Council candidates Kari Birdseye and Lionel Largaespada.

“The statements about Mr. Largaespada were uniformly positive and stated how, for example, he would use his small business background to improve the city’s economy and relations with its businesses,” Young wrote in a Sept. 20 letter published by the Benicia Independent. “The statements about Ms. Birdseye were the opposite. Among these statements were ‘She wants to shut down Valero, costing hundreds of jobs,’ and ‘She will bring radical left-wing politics to City Hall.’”

Young said the survey was a “push poll,” a type of survey meant to influence voters instead of gathering objective survey information from those called.

Winuk in his Monday letter denied that the survey was a “push poll.”

“The public opinion research survey in question was designed to gather feedback from local voters on issues relevant to the upcoming election. It involved a robust sample methodology, designed to achieve a random sampling of likely voters from within the city of Benicia,” Winuk wrote.

He further said 256 randomly selected likely voters from within Benicia were contacted from Sept. 6 to Sept. 20 to participate in the survey.

In response to the calls, the Benicia City Council met in closed session on Tuesday. A majority of the council directed Mc Laughlin to contact Research and EMC Research about the survey, and ask for a copy of the questions and provide information on who paid for the poll. She was also directed to contact the California Fair Political Practices Commission about the calls.

At issue is the alleged failure of the companies to disclose who paid for the poll — a violation of the Benicia Municipal Code.

“From the reports I received, the polling by your clients may have contained “push” questions without disclosing the payor and amount spent,” Mc laughlin wrote in her letter to Winuk. “The caller also did not provide a ‘paid for by’ disclaimer at the end of the phone calls.”

Winuk previously said the poll was not a campaign communication, and “did not require any disclaimer and did not violate any federal, state or local laws, including the provisions of the Benicia Municipal Code.”

Mc Laughlin’s Friday letter officially requested a copy of the poll questions.

“In order to avoid having to issue a subpoena, I would ask that you voluntarily provide a copy of the poll questions to me within the next 72 years,” Mc Laughlin wrote to Winuk.

She also requested an itemized invoice which shows the times, dates and number of calls made. Finally, she asked that Winuk file disclosure reports for any future push polls, which meet the definition of an independent expenditures, and also ensure a disclaimer is provided with the calls.

“The city believes strongly that an open, fair and truthful election process is essential to promoting and improving public trust in the election process,” she wrote. “The city also believes that candidates should have meaningful opportunities to respond to claims about their qualifications and positions on issues.”