An Ontario judge has found former Conservative party staffer Michael Sona guilty of trying to prevent voters from reaching the polls during the 2011 federal election.
Mr. Sona, 25, was the only person charged in the "robocalls" scandal, though the judge said it's likely he did not act alone. Mr. Sona faces a maximum penalty of $5,000, five years in prison or both. He will be sentenced at a later date.
Justice Gary Hearn made the ruling in Superior Court in Guelph, Ont., Thursday, after reviewing evidence presented during a five-day trial earlier this summer. He cited Mr. Sona's "arrogance and self-importance" as the fatal flaw that led him to gloat about the plot to friends and colleagues who later testified against him.
"He was not fabricating the main details of the plan. The evidence shows otherwise," Justice Hearn told the court, saying Mr. Sona should have heeded the advice of one witness who testified he told the young staffer to shut up.
"But he did not. His apparent arrogance and self-importance prevailed."
Mr. Sona was accused of executing a plan to direct non-Conservative supporters away from polling stations during the May, 2011, federal election. Mr. Sona was the director of communications for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke at the time. Liberal candidate Frank Valeriote ended up winning the riding with 25,588 votes, more than 6,000 ahead of Mr. Burke.
More than 6,700 homes, mostly in Guelph, received automated calls incorrectly informing residents that their polling stations had been relocated. The calls were ordered through Edmonton-based telemarketing firm RackNine from someone using the pseudonyms Pierre Jones and Pierre Poutine.
In April, Elections Canada closed a three-year investigation into reports of robocalls across the country, and found no evidence of an orchestrated scheme to deceive voters outside of southwestern Ontario. The scandal has cast a shadow over the Conservative government's rule for the past two years. But the end of the trial won't necessarily give the Tories a reprieve from the controversy. Crown prosecutor Croft Michaelson wasn't ruling out the possibility of more charges.
"We focus on one case at a time," Mr. Michaelson told reporters outside the courthouse. "I don't want to comment on what may or may not happen in the future. We're just focused on this case right now."
According to Mr. Michaelson, the case marks the first time someone has been prosecuted under this section of the Elections Act, which is why the court decided to reconvene in the fall to discuss sentencing after getting a chance to determine what might be appropriate in the unprecedented case. Mr. Michaelson would not reveal what sort of sentencing he hopes Mr. Sona will receive when he returns to court this fall.
"We will be seeking very forceful submissions on his sentencing in October. I don't want to comment on what our position is going to be but come and see on October 17."
Mr. Sona dodged media as he left the courthouse. His attorney, Norm Boxall, said Mr. Sona was "very disappointed" by the ruling, but that it would be inappropriate for his client to comment while the sentencing is still to be determined.
After the ruling, Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann issued a brief statement that did not address Mr. Sona by name but stressed the party was "not involved" in the voter suppression scheme that led to Thursday's ruling.
"Voter suppression is extremely serious and those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. That's why we reached out to Elections Canada when we heard of wrongdoing in Guelph and did all we could to assist them. As we've said all along, the Conservative Party ran a clean and ethical campaign," Mr. Hann's written statement said.
After the election, Mr. Sona worked in MP Eve Adams's office but resigned shortly after he was linked to the robocalls through an Elections Canada investigation. Mr. Sona said at the time he was leaving his job because the controversy was preventing him from doing his work, but he insisted he was not involved with the scandal.
With reports from Josh Wingrove and the Canadian Press