A political operative hiding behind the alias “Pierre Poutine” engineered an off-the-books scheme using robo-calls and a disposable cellphone to discourage opposition voters from casting ballots in an Ontario riding last May, Elections Canada alleges.
(Did you receive an election-day robo-call? We want to hear from you.)
Documents retrieved from an Edmonton court for the first time describe in detail exactly how Canada’s elections watchdog believes someone linked to the Conservative campaign in Guelph, Ont., tried to suppress the vote for rival candidates on May 2, 2011. This comes as opposition parties accuse the Tories of election misdeeds across a broader array of ridings – about 30 throughout the country.
The allegations laid out by Elections Canada paint a picture of a sophisticated dirty tricks campaign, one that is likely to damage the governing Conservatives despite their insistence that any wrongdoing was the work of a rogue political aide.
Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley said he has never encountered a vote suppression scheme on the scale of the one alleged in Guelph.
“Absolutely not, I can say that honestly,” he said in an interview. “This is the first I hear of something of this scope.”
Late Tuesday, Michael Sona, the former Conservative staffer linked to the controversy, broke his silence to protest his innocence and say he hoped the “real guilty party” would be found.
Elections Canada has been investigating complaints of voters being called and misdirected to the wrong polling station in the last federal election, and their probe has centred on Guelph. The Liberals ultimately held the riding in the May 2 ballot and even increased their margin of victory.
But Elections Canada alleges somebody in the campaign of Conservative candidate Marty Burke had a “customer relationship” with RackNine, an Alberta firm that distributes telephone messages and was used in the attempt to misdirect voters in Guelph. It says in court filings it believes this relationship “related to the misleading calls made to Guelph area electors.”
Agency investigator Allan Mathews says in court documents that he found Guelph Conservative campaign phones called RackNine 30 times during the election campaign, but he nevertheless found no Burke campaign receipts for payments to the Alberta company.
“I believe the individuals(s) behind the misleading calls … would not want a local campaign to be identified with the calls, as they amount to improper activity, and consequently I believe that any expense would likely be omitted from a campaign return,” Mr. Mathews said in the court filing.
The Elections Canada probe found three Burke campaign phones dialled RackNine during the campaign.
However, Andrew Prescott, deputy campaign manager for Mr. Burke’s campaign, said Tuesday he used the phones to call RackNine for legitimate reasons. He said RackNine was used in part to deliver messages countering a series of fraudulent calls Conservative voters received telling them polls were closing early.
He said the reason RackNine didn’t show up on Mr. Burke’s expense forms was because he was working for the campaign as an individual contractor and was not billing Mr. Burke for the cost of the calls. Mr. Prescott said he did nothing wrong and is cooperating with the Elections Canada probe.
Elections Canada’s Mr. Mathews said in court filings he believes the Guelph robo-calls are linked to a Virgin Mobile disposable cellphone registered to the improbably named “Pierre Poutine of Separatist Street” in Joliette, Que. The inspiration for this alias is unknown, but there is a Pierre’s Poutine restaurant in Guelph.
Disposable phones – also called “burner phones” – are prepaid phones with lax registration requirements.
The alias Pierre Poutine hid the identity of whomever owned the cellphone, which was only activated in late April of 2011.
NDP MP Pat Martin pounced on the use of a disposable phone, saying it shows how untoward the scheme was. “Only dope dealers and Hells Angels and Tony Soprano use burner cellphones,” he said.
It turned out to be an exceptionally important piece of evidence for Elections Canada.
Guelph voters with call display reported seeing its number – 450-760-7746 – show up when they received the robo-calls misdirecting them to an exceptionally busy polling station.
In reality, the automated calls originated from RackNine in Alberta. Elections Canada alleges, however, that a tactic known as “spoofing” was used to instead make it seem as if they were coming from this 450-area code cellphone.
The agency suggests the robo-calls caused chaos on election day as an estimated 150 to 200 voters showed up at the wrong polling station and were told they had to vote elsewhere. A polling official at the station in the Old Quebec Street Mall described for Elections Canada how “some electors just stormed out of the polling station” while others “ripped up their [voter identification cards]which suggested they had no longer any intention of casting a ballot.”
Elections Canada makes it clear in court filings that it does not believe the robo-calling firm, RackNine, engaged in suspicious activity.
Separately, Mr. Sona – who worked on the Burke campaign in Guelph – told CTV News that his hands were clean.
“I have remained silent to this point with the hope that the real guilty party would be apprehended,” Michael Sona said.
“I had no involvement in the fraudulent phone calls, which also targeted our supporters as can be attested to by our local campaign team and phone records.”
He said he only resigned as an aide to Mississauga MP Eve Adams last week because allegations made it impossible to do his job.
Mr. Sona made news during the 2011 election campaign when he publicly objected to a polling station at the University of Guelph. The director of communications for Mr. Burke, Mr. Sona burst into the front foyer of the campus University Centre declaring the polling station illegal, according to accounts from students who described themselves as non-partisan.
With a report from Kim Mackrael in Toronto