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Guelph Politico is locally sourced and dedicated to covering the political and cultural scene in the City of Guelph. Est. 2008.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sona Trial Begins With Testimony from Burke Campaign Team

For local politicos, this was the biggest thing to hit the Guelph scene since we had back-to-back federal elections in 2008. I know, we lead a dull life, but for everyone who have wanted to see some kind of justice come out of the 2011 attempt to defraud voters of their right to vote, all hope now rests on Courtroom #2 at the Ontario Court of Justice in Guelph. Michael Sona, the communications director for the Marty Burke campaign, arrived for the start of his trial in fine spirits. He said he felt "great" and was looking forward to seeing how it all played out. What played out Monday was a recital of uncertainty as the first three witnesses called to testify teetered between throwing Sona under the bus (again) and exonerating him by omission.
In front of a gallery full of local, provincial and national press, as well as Sona's parents, crown prosecutor Croft Michaelson started laying out his case against Sona, who's charged with "willfully preventing or endeavouring to prevent an elector from voting." Michaelson proposed amending the court schedule, shorting the time set aside for trial by two days, and then began laying out the list of Admitted Facts. Confirming much of what we already know about the chain of events regarding the robocalls, the prosecution, through witness testimony, will try to tie Sona as the man who went to Futureshop, bought a burner phone, got a couple of prepaid Visas, record a fake message, and had a telemarketing firm sent it out to over 6,000 Guelph homes. 
The first witness called by the Crown was Chris Crawford, a classmate of Sona's from the University of Guelph, an associate from the Conservative Party's internship program, and the Canvassing Chair of the Burke campaign. Michaelson questioned Crawford about the Constituency Information Management System, or CIMS, how it was accessed, why it was accessed and how someone on the campaign would get access to it. Crawford was also asked why he would repeatedly log-in to the system, which was blamed on glitches in the office internet service. 
Also of concern to Michaelson was the layout of the Burke campaign office, particularly where certain campaigners would typically work from, where their computers were and in what cubicles they worked in. It was at this point that Crawford was asked about a conversation her overheard between Sona and a man he assumed was campaign manager Ken Morgan, owing to the fact that they were the only two other people in the campaign office that night. According to Crawford, Sona was "joking" about "American-style" campaign tactics, "suppressing voters and keeping them from showing up at the polls." Crawford said that the conversation was very general, mentioning no specific techniques and was off the cuff, the type of conversation you hear in any campaign office at anytime.
Michaelson pushed further, and asked Crawford to recount his testimony to Elections Canada investigators in March of 2012, when he described in more detail that Sona talked about calling Liberal voters late at night, and re-directing voters to other polling stations. Crawford then recalled that the timetable of this conversation was before the start of advanced polls, roughly two weeks before the May 2, 2011 Election Day and the day the robocalls were eventually made. Crawford also testified that he had talked to Sona who said that he would never do something like organize fraudulent phone calls, and the two apparently agreed it was a bad idea.
Under cross-examination, Sona's lawyer Norm Boxall set about poking holes in Crawford's testimony painting Sona as a character looking for trouble by asking the witness about two other elections he asked for Sona's help on immediately following the 2011 Federal Election, including his own race to be re-elected as Eastern Region Vice-President of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. 
Boxall then started to zero on what seemed to be the real villain in his estimation, Andrew Prescott. The deputy campaign manager on the Burke campaign and local blogger was familiar to both Sona and Crawford, and when Boxall asked Crawford when he last communicated with Prescott, the witness took a long pause before answering. Sona's attorney then wanted to know if Prescott was in the campaign office on the morning of Election Day, and where Prescott's work station was in relation to Morgan's. 
Crawford was then pressed on a slight discrepancy in his testimony on the stand today, and what he told Elections Canada investigators in 2012. Two years ago, Crawford said that there were other people, volunteers, around in the office when he overheard the conversation between Sona and Morgan, but today he said it was just the two of them. When pressed by Boxall, Crawford reiterated that, no, no one else was in the office at the time, just Sona, Morgan and Crawford. 
The examination then turned to Arthur Hamilton, the Conservative Party lawyer who accompanied and consulted many party witnesses in their interviews about robocalls with Elections Canada. According to Crawford, then-Conservative Party Director of Communications Fred DeLorey referred him to Hamilton after Crawford went to DeLorey for advice when contacted by Elections Canada. Boxall asked why Crawford approached DeLorey, and Crawford said it was because DeLorey was someone he felt "comfortable" talking to. Boxall then asked Crawford if he thought the investigation was a communications issue. No, replied Crawford simply. When pressed about why Crawford went to his Elections Canada interview with a lawyer not his own, but one representing the party, Crawford said "that's what I felt comfortable doing."

Elections Canada investigator Al Mathews (left) and Chris Crawford.

The afternoon brought a new witness, John White, the Chair of the Burke campaign's Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts. After responding to Michaelson's questions about his relationships with Sona, Morgan, Prescott and Crawford, White addressed the finer points of his GOTV work including identifying "good polls," places where the Conservative vote turnout could be strong, and assigning volunteers to work as scrutineers on Election Day, and where best to use them.
Of initial interest to Michaelson was how White used the CIMS database to create phone lists and other types of searches and potentially who he might have shared that information with. Among the considerations was the creation of lists of non-supporters, who could then be tested at the polling stations if they arrived without proper identification. White said that the more "gung ho" volunteers were entrusted with the bigger polls and to make a fuss if they thought a voter was fishy. People like, oddly enough, Michel Sona.
The questions then came around to Matthew McBain, and an e-mail sent to White on April 26, 2011. McBain worked in the national "war room" for the Conservatives, and when Sona was asking White about a way to make anonymous call to get a message out to help the campaign without tying the campaign to it, White referred Sona to McBain. White said he wasn't sure what Sona wanted to do an anonymous robocall about, but he believes it was related to religion. White also said that Sona was "enthusiastic about the idea," but White wasn't convinced it was a good idea, and referred Sona to McBain figuring an operative from Conservative HQ carried more weight than "some old cranky guy" with the local riding office. 
Like Crawford, White said that discussing "What if...?" scenarios about underhanded campaigning are commonplace amongst staff and volunteers. They'd talk about "various nefarious activities that could be fun to do, or could happen to someone else," White explained. 
On cross-examination, White testified that Sona never came to him for any voter information. Although Sona was authorized to use CIMS, as noted in the list of Admitted Facts, there is no record of him accessing the database, and White confirmed that saying, "as far as I know he never touched it." White added that Sona would not be asking for a phone number list anyway, and if he had, White would have noted that as it would have been an unusual request for the communications director. 
After other questions about knowledge concerning Old Quebec Street and the whether or not the Burke campaign had a siege mentality, Boxall confered with Sona and then asked about McBain's reputation as the guy you go to when you want to engage in dirty politics. "That was always my impression," said White who said that McBain was the one to talk to about "opposition research," or finding something incriminating to sling mud on an opposing candidate. 
With that it was time for McBain to take the stand. After recalling the circumstances of hearing from Sona in April 2011, he said he recognized the name from some media reports that "he tried to run off with a ballot box." That was why McBain reached out to White over e-mail about Sona, he wanted to see if should call Sona back. (White recalled in his testimony his e-mail reply to McBain saying, "check the news, he's good." Another reference to the ballot box incident.) McBain said they talked about Sona's idea of an autodial campaign, although he can't remember the details, and said that he didn't think it was "the best use of time," and instead, "focus on door knocking the other things campaigns do [...] It was not a good idea." Sona left a voice mail a couple of days later, otherwise, McBain said, he and Sona never had communication again.
Questioning turned to December 2011 when McBain said he was handed a package including phone lists and audio recordings. One of the phone lists had calls made to RackNine, and the second list had calls made from RackNine, and according to McBain's "very shallow comparison" it seemed that the outgoing calls were to people identified in CIMS as non-supporters of the Conservative Party in Guelph.
Boxall followed up on the package that McBain said was handed to him by another party staffer named Maddy. McBain didn't know why Maddy gave him the package, and he's not sure if he was the only one who was given the package, but he reiterated that he did not do indepth analysis. When he was done he gave Maddy his findings and never heard about it again. "If I was trying to satisfy myself, I would have dug deeper" said McBain in reference to his level of interest.
This where Boxall really went on the offensive. Sona's lawyer went at McBain about Arthur Hamilton, who got in touch with McBain after an interview was requested by Elections Canada. Unlike Crawford, McBain believed that Hamilton was acting in a capacity as his legal counsel, although he did also seek out legal advice from another attorney as well. When asked why Hamilton was there, McBain said, "He had a job he felt was important to do there." When Boxall pressed on the question of whether or not Hamilton was there was McBain's attorney or was representing the party, McBain said, "I don't know what the legal distinctions are."
In another interesting development, McBain claimed to have had no interest in following the case in the news, unlike both Crawford and McBain. "I hadn't followed it particularly closely," he said when Boxall showed him a National Post article about Sona's resignation from the office of MP Eve Adams after his name was leaked in the investigation. McBain said he was aware of the story, and the developments around Sona's employment, but danced around Boxall's attempt to box him on awareness about the investigation in the media. 
Tomorrow, RackNine CEO Matt Meier will be the first on the stand as the Crown's case continues.

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