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Robocalls: Will We Ever Know the Truth?

Elections Canada could help clear things up. But don't count on it.

Lawrence Martin 13 Sep 2013iPolitics

Lawrence Martin is the author of 10 books, including six national bestsellers. His most recent, Harperland, was nominated for the Shaughnessy Cohen award. His other works include two volumes on Jean Chrétien, two on Canada-U.S. relations and three books on hockey. He is a frequent commenter on iPolitics, where this article first appeared.

Michael Sona is the great exaggerator, a guy who loved tall tales and couldn't resist the urge when telling people about the alleged use of robocalls to misdirect voters in the 2011 election.

This, at least, is what colleagues of Sona have told investigators probing the robocalls affair in Guelph and other constituencies across the country.

Strangely -- according to this report -- Conservative party lawyer Arthur Hamilton was in the room as investigators questioned Sona's colleagues and prompted them on what to say.

Sona, the former Tory communications director for the Guelph riding, faces a charge of violating the Elections Act. But what worries Conservatives is his suggestion in media interviews that the operation was widespread -- that, and his claim that he is being scapegoated by the party.

Elections Canada, which for the last year has been under new and reputedly cautious leadership, is examining reports of suspicious calls in no less than 247 ridings. If (and it's a very big if) it is shown that there was a coordinated campaign in many of those ridings to direct voters to the wrong polling stations, it would be an explosive scandal -- worse than the one the Conservatives have faced over Senate expenditure abuses. It would be tantamount to saying the Conservatives attempted to rig the election outcomes in many ridings.

Lawyer's presence questioned

The credibility of Sona, whose court case could be heard this month, is therefore of paramount concern. Elections Canada investigator Allan Mathews interviewed several Tory workers early last year in the period following media revelations on the robocalls matter. Sona apparently had told these workers of robocalls in the Guelph riding. Several workers who have been cited in a document by Mathews, obtained by Postmedia, suggested Sona has a tendency to dramatize.

But in the document, Mathews says something that doesn't necessarily give off that impression. He says he suspects others were involved in the robocalls operations along with Sona.

Raising some eyebrows is the revelation that Hamilton was present for at least one of the interviews with the staffers and even directed participants on how to respond to questions. Some in the legal community are questioning the propriety of Hamilton's involvement.

In the view of Steven Shrybman, who represented the Council of Canadians in their robocalls case last year, "it's very curious because he wasn't representing the person being interviewed. I assume then that he could only have been present with the consent of both Elections Canada and the interviewee.

"It would be interesting to know why either would have agreed, given the obvious potential conflict of interest between the Conservative party and those being interviewed."

Grasping for investigation details

Elections Canada could help clear things up. But don't count on it. It's been almost two and a half years since the last election but Elections Canada has hardly been forthcoming about its investigation into voter disenfranchisement. Agency officials have given us little idea of how long the investigation might last, what kind of resources they are devoting to it, whether they are getting cooperation from the government. Isn't the public entitled to answers to some of these questions on a matter this important?

Were it not for the media -- primarily a couple of reporters for the Ottawa Citizen and Postmedia -- we would be every much in the dark about the robocalls scandal.

The surprise appointment in the summer of 2012 of Yves Côté as the new commissioner of Elections Canada has raised concerns about the quality of the investigation. He is described as a competent but cautious bureaucrat rarely known for tackling a file aggressively. Why would the government want someone to tackle the robocalls file aggressively?

Elections Canada did finally move on one file, an important one. After a long investigation in a case involving MP Dean Del Maestro, the parliamentary secretary to Stephen Harper, over expense claims in the 2008 campaign, the agency referred the file to the office of the director of public prosecutions, Brian Saunders. It is now up to Saunders to determine if the evidence warrants a prosecution.

Saunders has had the file for about three months. So far, not a word. Meanwhile, Del Maestro stays on as parliamentary secretary to the top office-holder in the land.

We're left hanging

On the robocalls controversy it has become clear that Arthur Hamilton is the Conservatives' heavy-hitter. In the days before the vote in the 2011 election, Elections Canada officials were getting a slew of complaints from voters, as internal emails have shown, about misleading phone calls. Officials went to the party and were referred to Hamilton who, after a day's wait, got back to say the party was contacting voters because some polling stations had been changed and the party wanted to make sure all was right.

Later, it was revealed that Elections Canada had asked parties not to contact voters about polling station changes, that only a tiny percentage had in fact been changed and that many of the Tory calls, curiously enough, were going to non-Conservative supporters.

But while opposition parties suspect the worst on this file, the degree of merit in the case is far from clear. In a case last December in which the Council of Canadians tried to have election results overturned in several ridings as a result of alleged misleading calls, it was noteworthy that the Council could not produce voters who said they were disenfranchised by the calls.

The case was dismissed by the judge -- but he did determine that a vote suppression campaign had been undertaken and that the Conservative party's voter database appeared to have been the source for it.

That left things hanging. Because the case did not examine the full number of ridings from which complaints came, we still don't know how widespread the misdirection might have been -- or who might have authorized it.

It could be that some people, like Michael Sona, are given to exaggeration. Or it could be that a governing party that has been no stranger to dirty tricks overstepped the bounds on this one and will pay a huge price. We just don't know -- and if the new guy at Elections Canada isn't pursuing the investigation thoroughly, we might never know.  [Tyee]

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