National News

Robocalls trial hears of underhanded tactics

By Mike Oliveira, The Canadian Press

GUELPH, Ont. - A former Conservative staffer charged with election fraud was overheard discussing underhanded tactics to sway the vote, but wasn't taken seriously, a fellow campaign worker testified Monday.

The so-called robocalls trial for Michael Sona, 25, charged with "wilfully preventing or endeavouring to prevent an elector from voting," got underway Monday in Guelph, Ont. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

Court heard that on May 2, 2011, automated calls were made to more than 6,700 telephone numbers, mostly in Guelph, informing residents their polling station for the 2011 federal election had been relocated.

The perpetrator hired the telemarketing firm RackNine to place the calls but used fake identifies — most famously the pseudonym Pierre Poutine — a disposable phone, and web cloaking techniques to mask his or her identity.

Crown attorney Croft Michaelson said he expects several witnesses will testify that Sona orchestrated the phone campaign to help the Conservatives win the Guelph riding and would later brag about it.

Chris Crawford, a "pretty good friend" of Sona's who worked as campaign chairman for local Conservative candidate Marty Burke, was the trial's first witness. He told court he recalled overhearing a conversation between Sona and another worker one night in Burke's campaign office in the weeks leading up to the election.

At first, Crawford said, he didn't recall specifics from the conversation — just that Sona was talking about how underhanded tactics were a common feature of election battles in the U.S.

"It was very general — it wasn't specific techniques, it was a general conversation," Crawford said under questioning by Michaelson.

"Sometimes you get conversations like this, people speaking off the cuff, no one really thinks anything of it."

After reviewing a statement he gave to Elections Canada investigators in March 2012, however, Crawford became more specific.

"He mentioned about calling Liberal supporters late at night, like 11 o'clock at night, to make them mad, that type of thing."

Earlier, the Crown had read aloud an agreed-upon statement of facts about how the calls were made.

Court heard the same customer who hired RackNine to place the automated calls to Guelph voters, purportedly from Elections Canada, also requested a second campaign.

Those calls, which did not get dialed as planned, were recorded to sound as though they were on behalf of the local Liberal candidate and were to ring voters' phones between 4 a.m. and 6:45 a.m.

The Crown says the phone numbers provided to RackNine in both cases were consistent with internal Conservative party lists of non-supporters.

Under questioning, Crawford was adamant he didn't take Sona's comments seriously, although he did mention to him that he didn't approve of such tactics.

"In campaigns you often hear yammering on about different things and you don't think these things actually will happen. You give them the benefit of the doubt."

Sona's lawyer, Norm Boxall, challenged Crawford's memory of the conversation and noted Crawford told Elections Canada investigators "I recall it vaguely" when recounting the incident in 2012.

When Boxall asked whether there was any suggestion that Sona intended to move forward with a plan, Crawford said there wasn't. Crawford said it wasn't until Sona was implicated as a suspect in media reports about the Guelph robocalls that he took the conversation more seriously.

John White, in charge of get-out-the-vote activities, testified that he connected Sona with a colleague, Matt McBain, about how he might be able to get out a partisan message that wouldn't be linked back to the party.

White said his gut feeling was that Sona's plan was a bad idea but was confident McBain would steer him in the right direction or scuttle the idea.

Under cross examination, White agreed that borderline tactics are frequently discussed during the course of elections without proceeding any further.

"I can't remember being in a campaign where they do not occur," White said.

He told court Burke's campaign office had been on edge after some local voters received automated calls about the candidate's views on abortion. The Liberals would later be fined $4,900 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for failing to state during the calls that they were funded by the party or MP Frank Valeriote's campaign.

White said he did not know of Sona ever having access to the party's voter lists used for automated calls and would have found it unusual if he asked for access.

McBain also told court he wasn't alarmed by a brief conversation he had with Sona and thought he had talked him out of his idea.

"Nothing about it struck me as beyond the normal crazy ideas that come out," said McBain. He agreed with a suggestion from Boxall that a plan to trick voters away from their proper polling station would have aroused concern.

"It didn't leave me worried that something had to be done."

Other expected witnesses include Andrew Prescott, a friend of Sona who co-operated with the Crown as part of an immunity agreement. He is slated to potentially testify on Tuesday.

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