Stephen Harper is categorically denying the Conservative Party's national campaign was behind misleading robo-calls that confused voters in Guelph, Ont., and elsewhere – even as Elections Canada probes complaints of a separate alleged misdeed: harassing calls impersonating the Liberal Party.
In his strongest statement yet, the Prime Minister sought to distance his campaign machine Wednesday from alleged dirty tricks in the 2011 election. It's a declaration that could come back to haunt him should evidence ever surface that anyone at Conservative election headquarters on Lancaster Road in Ottawa knew of illegal phone calls.
Canada's election watchdog is already investigating one Ontario riding – Guelph – where it alleges a political operative hiding behind the alias "Pierre Poutine" engineered an off-the-books scheme using robo-calls and a disposable cellphone to discourage voters from casting ballots.
Opposition parties allege the problem is more widespread – across 30 to 40 ridings – but Conservative partisans privately say they believe whoever was behind the calls in Guelph was perhaps responsible for similar activities in a handful of ridings at best.
"The Conservative Party can say absolutely, definitively, it has no role in any of this," Mr. Harper told the Commons Wednesday. His office followed up to make it clear he was talking about the national campaign and not the teams fighting individual riding races.
Documents from an Edmonton court this week describe in detail exactly how Canada's elections watchdog believes someone linked to the Conservative campaign in Guelph tried to suppress the vote for rival candidates on May 2, 2011. The Liberal incumbent nevertheless retained his seat, beating Tory candidate Marty Burke by a sizable margin despite widespread complaints that robo-calls were directing voters to the wrong polling stations.
Separately, the Liberals said Wednesday that Elections Canada investigators have been probing their complaints concerning phone calls made to voters where political rivals allegedly impersonated the opposition party.
For example, the Liberals allege hundreds of voters received phone calls at inconvenient hours from people presenting themselves as being Liberal Party workers. In an apparent bid to alienate electors, these calls arrived at supper time, late at night or on the Sabbath for Jewish voters.
"If this happened in one riding, we would say it was just a prank. If it happened to be two, it might be a coincidence," interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said. "When it happens in over 30 ridings, the explanation has to come from the Conservative Party."
A Liberal official said that Elections Canada is being tight-lipped about the state of this probe, but the agency's investigators are requesting additional information on the allegations of impersonated phone calls.
"They are taking it seriously; they want our information," the Liberal official said.
Long-time Liberal MP Joe Volpe, who was defeated in the closely fought Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence last year, complained that electors were flooded with repetitive and harassing phone calls, falsely made in his campaign's name. Call display showed the calls as originating in North Dakota, likely a ruse to hide their true origin. He lost his seat to Conservative candidate Joe Oliver, now Minister of Natural Resources.
Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, who held on to her riding of St-Paul's, complained this week in the House of calls to Jewish voters in her riding on the Sabbath, once again purportedly on behalf of the Liberal campaign.
Stories of other sorts of phony calls are also coming to light.
Dorothy Venkiteswaran, a voter in the riding of Kitchener-Waterloo, said she received a call in the days leading up to the May 2 ballot that purported to be from Elections Canada. It was a live caller, not a robo-call, and it falsely informed her that her polling station had changed.
She said she didn't believe the caller because news stories had warned voters about such misdirects.
Ms. Venkiteswaran said she was surprised the caller specifically asked for her, not her husband – saying telemarketers normally ask for him – and she noted she is likely on a Liberal mailing list because of work she did about seven years earlier for the party in Goderich, Ont.
Elections Canada is also expected to interview workers at the Conservative Party's main call centre, the Responsive Marketing Group. However, there is no evidence the firm's callers deliberately misled electors, with Conservative officials pointing out that there are bound to be mistakes in a database containing information on millions of voters.
One of the Conservatives' veteran campaign organizers, Senator Doug Finley, said his party does not engage in dirty tricks.
"It's totally overblown," he said of the current controversy.
Mr. Finley said, in fact, he studied "what you may call dirty tricks" during his career as a Conservative organizer, but his only goal was to find ways to "defend against them."
Most members of Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke's campaign team have not responded to repeated requests for comment from reporters.
A woman who answered the phone at Mr. Burke's home on Tuesday said he had been away flying (Mr. Burke is a pilot) and would be back the following day. He could not be reached again on Wednesday, either by phone or in person at his residence. Mr. Burke's campaign manager, Ken Morgan, has declined to respond to e-mails sent to his personal and riding association e-mail accounts.
One person involved in planning Guelph Conservative events said she believes Mr. Morgan is currently travelling in the U.S. Michael Sona, who ran communications for Mr. Burke during the campaign, released a statement to CTV denying his involvement in the illegitimate calls.
With a report from Kim Mackrael in Toronto