09/07/2006 06:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Pollster That Made Up Data

Here is a story we hate to see.  The manager of a survey call center that did work for Republican pollsters pleaded guilty yesterday to defrauding her clients and now faces up to five years in prison and a possible $250,000 fine.  The Associated Press has the ugly details: 

According to a federal indictment, Costin told employees to alter poll data, and managers at the company told employees to "talk to cats and dogs" when instructing them to fabricate the surveys.

An FBI affidavit from 2004 quotes a supervisor of the company estimating that 50 percent of the data sent to Bush's campaign was falsified. FBI Special Agent Jeff Rovelli, who wrote the affidavit, said Thursday that investigators were not able to verify the claim related to Bush because that data was not located and analyzed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Chang said on several occasions when the company was running up against a deadline to complete a job, results were falsified. Sometimes, the respondent's gender or political affiliation were changed to meet a quota, other times all survey answers were fabricated.

Most pollsters, including a large number of news media pollsters, use third party call centers to conduct their interviews.  I do not have personal experience with DataUSA, the firm Costin worked for (now known as Viewpoint USA), but it certainly sounds like a subcontractor used by at least one of the pollsters for the Bush campaign. 

The 13-page indictment issued in March (via White Collar Crime Prof) has some details that other pollsters should find chilling.  In addition to the falsification described above, it claims that Costin and others instructed employees to alter and falsify the gender and political affiliation of respondents to meet job quotas and deadlines, and "modified the survey script by altering [interviewing software] source code to eliminate questions and undesired data" (p. 5).  More important, it alleges that the conspiracy began "in and around June of 2001" (p. 3) and lists specific instances of falsification that occurred between June 2002 and October 2004.   If this particular conspiracy went undetected for two to three years, you have to wonder if this is just an isolated incident or if the problem might be more widespread. 

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