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Watchdog Asks Prosecutors to Reopen Robocall Investigation

Council of Canadians says the 'ringleaders' in the scandal must be caught.

Jeremy Nuttall 18 Dec 2014TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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Michael Sona is the only person charged in the 2011 robocalls scandal. Both Elections Canada and an Ontario judge have indicated there were likely more people involved.

A government watchdog is demanding the Public Prosecution Service of Canada re-open the investigation into the 2011 robocall scandal following the prosecutor's decision to appeal for a stronger sentence against the only person charged in the scheme.

The prosecutor wants to send a message to would-be election tamperers with a stiffer sentence for Michael Sona, who was convicted in November for his involvement in organizing the 2011 scheme.

Sona received a nine-month sentence for wilfully preventing or endeavouring to prevent a voter from casting a ballot. He is currently out on bail as he appeals the conviction.

The Council of Canadians has asked numerous times in the past, without success, for the case to be re-opened by the Commissioner of Elections Canada.

But the council's Dylan Penner said in asking the public prosecutor to re-open the investigation, the council is going over the commissioner's head because the service now oversees the commissioner's office.

"If the public prosecutor feels strongly that the sentence was too lenient in relation to Sona, then it should be an issue taken seriously enough to reopen the investigation itself," Penner said.

During the 2011 election, robotic phone calls were placed to people known to support parties other than the Conservatives within the City of Guelph directing them to the wrong polling stations.

Soon after, similar complaints to Elections Canada began to emerge across the country.

In a decision to dismiss an application by a group of citizens to annul the results of six ridings across Canada due to the scandal, Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley in Ottawa said the scheme was likely perpetrated by more than one person.

The only person ever charged in the case was Sona, who at the time was the 22-year-old communications director for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke.

'More serious action' needed: Penner

The public prosecutor has appealed Sona's nine-month sentence, but Penner said that doesn't go far enough and the hunt to capture others behind the scheme must be relaunched.

"Our point is that more serious action requires re-opening the investigation to find the ringleaders who are still at large," Penner said.

But a spokesman for the public prosecutor, Daniel Brien, said his organization doesn't conduct such investigations. Though the commissioner's job was moved within the prosecutor's jurisdiction this year, Brien said his organization doesn't have the ability to force the investigation to be reopened.

Elections Canada found the scandal to potentially involve misleading calls to people in hundreds of ridings across the country.

In Sona's case, Ontario Superior Court Justice Gary Hearn indicated in his judgment there were more people involved in the plot.

"Although the evidence indicates he (Sona) did not likely act alone, he was a party to the offence," Hearn wrote.

Attempt not likely to succeed: prof

Director of the Canadian Studies Program at the University of Toronto, Prof. Nelson Wiseman, said he doesn't think the latest attempt to reopen the case will succeed, because in the past those involved have gone to great lengths to keep silent.

But he said if it were reopened, it could be a major blow to the Conservatives with an election less than one year away.

"It all depends when these things happen," Wiseman said. "Look at how the Conservatives plummeted in the polls as soon as the Mike Duffy case blew up."

Penner said authorities need to get to the bottom of the case before the next election.

He stressed new regulations brought in under the Fair Elections Act could make it easier to get away with tactics like robocalling during the 2015 election, because the law limits the Elections Officer's ability to communicate with the electorate about such activities if they're discovered.  [Tyee]

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