Democratic Party officials in southern Virginia have accused local Republicans of falsely identifying themselves as pollsters for The Washington Post or a Richmond newspaper in telephone calls aimed at persuading citizens to vote for GOP candidates.
"We've had reports from several people who'd gotten calls from The Washington Post or The Richmond Times-Dispatch," said Franklin County Democratic chairman Willard Finney. "If they said they were voting Democratic, they'd hang up. On the other hand, if they weren't real sure and were wavering a little bit, the impression that was left with people was that they should vote for Republican gubernatorial nominee J. Marshall Coleman."
A check of telephone numbers of persons who reported receiving the calls showed that none of them were called by Post telephone pollers. A spokesman for the Richmond newspaper said yesterday that it had not received any complaints from the area and added that all of its polling was done in the name of a subsidiary and not the paper.
Cliff Hapgood, assistant commonwealth's attorney and treasurer of the Franklin County Democratic Party, said he saw a mimeographed sheet of instructions to GOP phone bank operators advising them to introduce themselves as being either from The Post or The Times-Dispatch.
"I'd been trying to find out what was going on," said Hapgood, who as prosecutor said he had received a dozen complaints about the calls by Monday. "And I think I found out . . . I can't understand why Republicans would do that, why they would not simply be truthful." He said he knew of no law that might have been broken by the callers.
David Melesco, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party, would not confirm or deny the reports, but said he would check with other party members. "Maybe it's the Democrats," he said.
Neil Cotiaux, spokesman for the state GOP, said he hadn't heard of the complaints. Cotiaux added, however, that he hoped "no one at the local level was unethical or stupid enough to do something like that."
"Actually," said the Democrat's Finney, "I think it backfired." In a town the size of Rocky Mount, population 4,100, news of the bogus survey traveled quickly. "I was in the barbership this morning and I heard about two others," said Hapgood.
Iris Betterton is still angry about the call she got, ostensibly from the Times-Dispatch. "When I told them I was voting for Democrats, they said, 'Oh, really, do you consider yourself a liberal?' I'm not dumb. I could tell by his reaction that it wasn't legitimate. And I resented it."