Interfering with a citizen's right to vote merits real jail time, an Ontario judge declared Wednesday as he made Michael Sona the first person to spend time behind bars for violating the Canada Elections Act.
Mr. Sona, a former Conservative staffer convicted in the 2011 robocalls scandal, was sentenced to nine months behind bars and one year's probation for what Justice Gary Hearn called "an affront to the electoral process."
He's the first person convicted of wilfully preventing or endeavouring to prevent an elector from voting under the Canada Elections Act, said Justice Hearn, who called his task "a difficult and troublesome sentencing."
Justice Hearn said he believes Mr. Sona did not act alone in the scheme, in which some 6,700 automated phone calls were placed on the morning of the 2011 federal election with misleading information on how to vote.
Mr. Sona, who was just 22 at the time of the offence, lacked proper guidance from more experienced colleagues, and has suffered emotionally in the aftermath, Justice Hearn acknowledged.
But jail time was nonetheless warranted to send the message – particularly to those involved in politics – that messing with the electoral process is a serious crime, he said.
"This was a deliberate and considered course of criminal conduct specifically designed to subvert the inherent fairness of the electoral process," Justice Hearn told the court.
"This was a federal election undertaken to elect representatives who form the governing body in our nation. This was not an amateurish Grade 8 election campaign for student council. Conduct such as that of Mr. Sona is not suitable at any time."
Mr. Sona hung his head and fiddled with his BlackBerry, his family members beside him in tears, as Justice Hearn delivered the verdict. Mr. Sona was later led out of the courtroom by police.
Mr. Sona's lawyer, Norm Boxall, said his client would be transferred to an unspecified provincial jail. He said a decision has not yet been made whether to file an appeal.
"He's obviously disappointed with the decision, but he's strong," Mr. Boxall said outside court. "He will be considering all of his options in the upcoming days, and those decisions are best made when persons can reflect calmly and logically and not do them in the emotional aftermath of a decision."
Mr. Boxall said Mr. Sona would likely consult with another lawyer to determine whether an appeal is appropriate. He could then seek a release from jail pending his appeal. Should he decide not to appeal, he could be eligible to apply for parole after three months, Mr. Boxall said.
In a statement issued through a friend and posted to Twitter, Mr. Sona continued to plead his innocence.
"I had no involvement in the fraudulent phone calls," the statement said.
"Furthermore, although I have suspicions based on media reports I've read, as other Canadians do, I have no [personal] knowledge who on the … campaign was responsible for these fraudulent phone calls."
Mr. Boxall had asked for a suspended sentence or a six-to-12-month conditional sentence with house arrest, parole and a requirement for community service.