"Hello. This is President George W. Bush. You will soon receive an application for an absentee ballot. Please take the time to fill out that application and mail it back. Once you've received your ballot I hope you'll support our great Republican candidates. They're working to make America stronger, safer, and better. I appreciate their support of my agenda. Please, when a vote-by-mail application arrives, fill it out and return it. It's a convenient way to vote. Exercise your right as an American to vote, and join me in supporting our Republican candidates. Thank you." A different voice then says, "Paid for by Team California, California Republican Party."
If you've voted Republican recently you may have received this prerecorded call and then an absentee-ballot application in the mail. If you haven't you can hear the call at the "news" section of www.privatecitizen.org, run by Bob Bulmash of Naperville.
Bulmash has his hands full combating regular telemarketers (the January 25, 2002, Reader had a story about those efforts). But once the president started making taped appearances on phones from Maine to Alaska, Bulmash took him on as well. He has listened to the tape closely and believes that it's been spliced in several places to smooth out the president's sometimes halting delivery. And he notes that it's timed so that the "paid for" postscript comes just after the 30-second mark, when many answering systems will cut it off.
But Bulmash has more than voice analysis on his mind. He says that the chief executive's message violates a regulation--47 CFR 64.1200 (d)(2)--issued by the Federal Communications Commission under the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act, because it fails to "state clearly the telephone number...or address of...the business, individual, or other entity initiating the call."
The taped call does seem to be illegal--but only in the hyperliteral sense that driving 56 miles per hour on the Tri-State is illegal. How could anyone not know who President George W. Bush is or where to reach him?
Bulmash, who acknowledges that he's a "Bushophobe," isn't willing to let it go. He wants state attorneys general to sue the president. As he points out, the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act lets them sue anyone who makes a "pattern or practice" of violating the law, and to collect up to $500 for each call made. He doesn't know if an attorney general has ever sued a politician for failing to properly identify the source of a recorded call, though he says, "Since Democrats do the same thing, I assume nobody has."
Not in Illinois anyway. Attorney General Jim Ryan has indeed filed five federal lawsuits for violations of the TCPA, according to a spokesperson, but they all involved companies that were sending unsolicited commercial faxes.
Unsolicited campaign phone calls may have to receive their just deserts not in court but at the ballot box.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.