Former Conservative party staffer Michael Sona has been convicted of trying to prevent voters from casting ballots during the 2011 federal election.
Sona, 25, was the only person charged in what has come to be known as the robocalls scandal, in which automated calls were set up to target voters in Guelph — most of them Liberal supporters — with misleading instructions on where to vote.
After a long recounting of the trial’s testimony, Superior Court Justice Gary Hearn said he was convinced “well beyond a reasonable doubt” that Sona was guilty.
Sona hung his head and family members fought back tears as Hearn explained his decision.
Sona was “very disappointed” by the ruling, said his lawyer, Norm Boxall.
Croft Michaelson, the Crown prosecutor, said he was pleased with result, adding “we’ll be making very forceful submissions on sentencing in October.”
He added: “If there was any political party that actively participated in a scheme to endeavour to prevent electors from voting … that would be very serious conduct.”
“Anyone who engages in this kind of conduct, where there’s evidence that they endeavoured to prevent electors from voting, I think based on what took place in court today and what you’ve seen us do in relation to this case, I would expect they would be prosecuted.”
Edmonton-based technology company RackNine was hired to make the calls to some 6,700 Guelph phone numbers by a customer who used fake names, including the pseudonym Pierre Poutine.
Boxall elected not to call any witnesses at the trial and argued that the Crown failed to definitively prove that Sona was involved in the scheme.
Hearn disagreed, saying the evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Sona “was involved in the scheme very actively.”
Boxall and Michaelson both told Hearn during their closing arguments that they believed more than one person was involved in the plot.
Conservative party spokesman Cory Hann was quick to react to the verdict.
“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,” Hann said in a statement.
“As we’ve said all along, the Conservative party ran a clean and ethical campaign.”
However, the Council of Canadians maintained the verdict doesn’t exonerate the Conservative party. The advocacy group continues to believe higher-ranking Conservative officials were likely involved in a cross-country conspiracy to suppress votes in dozens of ridings.
“We have a few clues about one minor player but we still don’t have the ringleaders,” Maude Barlow, the council’s national chairperson, said in a written statement.
“Remember this didn’t just happen in Guelph.”
The council backed a court challenge last year of election results in six ridings, in which Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley concluded that the Conservative party’s massive voter identification data base was “the most likely source” of information used to make misleading robocalls to electors “in ridings across the country.” Mosley nevertheless refused to annul the results in the six ridings.
However, Yves Cote, commissioner of elections, dismissed the nationwide conspiracy theory in April, after wrapping up a three-year investigation into some 2,500 complaints about robocalls from voters in 261 ridings. He concluded there was insufficient evidence to believe an offence was committed in any riding other than Guelph.
Frank Valeriote, the Liberal MP who handily won re-election in Guelph despite the robocalls, shares the belief that the scheme was much wider than just one junior Tory staffer in a single riding. But he doubts anyone will ever be able to prove it.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of it,” Valeriote said in an interview.
The masterminds of the scheme “choreographed this quite nicely so that Mr. Sona has taken the fall,” Valeriote said. Moreover, he said the Conservative government has thwarted further investigation on this and other cases in future by refusing to give the elections commissioner the power he sought to compel witness testimony and access detailed robocall records.
Court heard testimony from a number of Sona’s former colleagues, who said he spoke of wanting to employ some underhanded campaigning tactics before the election, and then bragged about launching the calls afterwards.
The Crown’s star witness was former friend and co-worker Andrew Prescott, who testified against Sona in exchange for an immunity agreement.
He told court he heard Sona jubilantly declare, “It’s working,” on the morning of election day. Prescott said Sona later toasted Stephen Harper’s majority win by giving “thanks to Pierre” — an apparent reference to the pseudonym used to order the calls.
But both the Crown and defence said Prescott wasn’t an entirely credible witness. During his closing remarks, Michaelson told Hearn that Prescott’s testimony “should probably be approached with caution.”
Indeed, in the decision, Hearn said he largely rejected the testimony of Prescott, but found the totality of other evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Sona was in some way involved in the scheme.
Other witnesses, Hearn said, were “candid, forthright and consistent.”
Boxall noted Prescott gave inconsistent answers during pre-trial interviews with the Crown and Elections Canada. He suggested Prescott had more technical know-how than Sona and was more likely to have been behind the calls.
“Mr. Prescott is deflecting responsibility from himself and perhaps others,” Boxall told Hearn.