Former Tory staffer becomes first person charged in robo-calls probe

Ottawa — The Globe and Mail

Michael Sona stands before Parliament Hill. (FACEBOOK)

Elections Canada has charged a former Conservative staffer over the 2011 robo-call controversy, although the full mystery surrounding the identity of trickster “Pierre Poutine” remains unsolved.

Investigators are still working the case, and the first person charged as part of the probe, Michael Sona, says he did not have the technological knowledge to set up the fraudulent automated phone calls.

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The controversy involves more than 6,000 robo-calls designed to send non-Conservative supporters to the wrong polling station on election day in the Ontario riding of Guelph using a list compiled by the Conservative Party.

Court documents filed by Elections Canada investigators allege that one or more individuals behind the fraudulent calls used a cellphone registered under the pseudonym “Pierre Poutine” just ahead of voting day. The disposable cellphone was used to set up an account with an Alberta firm specializing in automated calls, which required an understanding of the computer system to launch the phone calls.

Mr. Sona was the director of communications on the campaign team of Conservative candidate Marty Burke, who lost to his Liberal adversary on May 2, 2011. After the election, Mr. Sona went to work for Conservative MP Eve Adams in Ottawa, but he resigned last year when he was first linked to the robo-calls. He has since publicly denied any wrongdoing, saying he left Ms. Adams’s office only because the allegations swirling in the media prevented him from doing his job.

He was charged Tuesday with “having wilfully prevented or endeavoured to prevent an elector from voting at an election,” according to Elections Canada.

In a statement, Mr. Sona’s lawyer said the charge is “disappointing,” but that it will be resolved in a court of law instead of the media. Lawyer Norm Boxall said a public inquiry into the entire robo-call controversy should be called, stating Mr. Sona was “a single individual who held a junior position on a single campaign and who clearly lacked the resources and access to the data required to make the robo-calls.”

Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Côté is continuing his investigation into “deceptive calls in the 41st general election,” adding that Canadians have been disturbed to learn of the fraudulent activities in a number of ridings across Canada.

“I hope that the charge we filed today will send a strong message that such abuses under the Canada Elections Act will not be tolerated,” Mr. Côté said in a statement.

In February of last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper sought to distance his Conservative team from any illegal acts committed during the 2011 election.

“The Conservative Party can say absolutely, definitively, it has no role in any of this,” Mr. Harper said in the House.

In a statement on Tuesday, Conservative spokesman Fred DeLorey said his party does not engage in so-called “voter suppression” tactics.

“The Conservative Party of Canada ran a clean and ethical campaign and does not tolerate such activity. The party was not involved with these calls, and those that were will not play a role in any future campaign,” Mr. DeLorey said.

In court documents filed last year, Elections Canada investigator Al Mathews said Mr. Sona was one of two Conservative officials in Guelph who were overheard discussing the use of harassing and misleading calls in U.S. political races.

Mr. Mathews also reported that, two days before voting day, campaign director Ken Morgan and Mr. Sona asked a campaign colleague to give them contact information for RackNine Inc., the Alberta firm that delivered the fraudulent robo-calls. They sought the information from Andrew Prescott, the deputy campaign manager who was already in contact with RackNine and who arranged legitimate automated phone campaigns.

Mr. Sona first made news during the 2011 campaign when he publicly objected to a polling station at the University of Guelph. He burst into the front foyer of the campus University Centre and declared the polling station illegal, according to accounts from students at the site.

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