GUELPH, Ont. — As voters began marking their ballots on election day in 2011, Michael Sona jubilantly declared, “It’s working,” and ended the day by toasting a Stephen Harper win and giving “thanks to Pierre,” a star Crown witness testified Wednesday.
Andrew Prescott, who at the time was Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke’s deputy campaign manager, described it as the first time he would hear the infamous name Pierre in connection with the campaign.
It would not be the last.
Sona, 25, is a former Conservative campaign worker whom the Crown alleges was behind a scheme to mislead non-Conservative supporters in the riding by ordering more than 6,700 automated calls on the morning of the election.
The calls, which falsely claimed to come from Elections Canada, gave would-be voters incorrect information about where to cast their ballots.
Investigators would later find the cellphone that called the robocall company, RackNine Inc., was registered under a fake name, Pierre Poutine, and that the account with the telemarketer was under a pseudonym, Pierre Jones.
Sona is charged with “wilfully preventing or endeavouring to prevent an elector from voting” and faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Prescott told court he used two RackNine accounts on election day: one was his own, while the other he accessed through campaign manager Kenneth Morgan.
Shortly after 4 a.m., a number of workers were in the campaign office talking about the day ahead and Sona asked questions about robocalls, said Prescott.
He was initially hesitant, but logged into his RackNine account and offered up some information when Sona said, “‘Why not? You’re not doing anything illegal,”’ Prescott testified.
The caller ID information could be manipulated for automated calls, Prescott noted — a remark that sparked Sona’s interest, he testified.
“Sona expressed a little bit of surprise and said, ‘Let me understand this: you can make it appear to be can be coming from anywhere,”’ Prescott said.
“To pre-empt any thought of using things for nefarious purposes, I actually specifically said, ‘Everything can be traced.”’
Some hours later — Prescott could not recall the exact time — he saw Sona emerge from his cubicle, trembling with delight.
Sona appeared “almost euphoric” as he said, “‘It’s working,”’ Prescott testified. He did not ask Sona to elaborate, he added.
Later in the day, with media outlets describing reports of fake calls, Prescott said he was ordered by Morgan to log into another RackNine account, which he did not recognize, and told: “‘I need you to stop the calls.”’
“I was extremely hesitant because obviously I caught wind there was stuff going on that day; we started receiving media reports of fake calls that were going around,” he testified.
“Whatever was going on, I did not want to get involved.”
He tried to avoid looking too closely at what he was seeing on his screen as he cancelled the robocall campaign, he added.”Knowing (that) what was going on was something I didn’t want to get involved in, I kept my vision very limited.”
Prescott said he didn’t mention the incident to anyone until contacted by Elections Canada months later.
Morgan moved to Kuwait shortly after the 2011 campaign and, according to court documents, has refused to speak to Elections Canada investigators about the robocall affair. He has not been charged with any offence.
Under cross-examination by Sona’s lawyer, Norm Boxall, Prescott admitted he wasn’t fully forthcoming with what he knew until he signed his immunity agreement with the Crown. He did not mention Sona saying, “It’s working” or Morgan’s order to log into RackNine and abort a campaign.
“I did not have any immunity at that point and I was answering (Elections Canada’s) questions but I did not volunteer information,” he said.
When asked by Boxall if he withheld information to protect himself, Prescott replied that he did. He also said he encouraged Morgan earlier this year to seek his own immunity agreement with the Crown.
“I was concerned for him,” Prescott said. “I wanted to protect those who I didn’t think were involved.”
Boxall noted that it was Prescott who leaked news of his immunity agreement to the media, and suggested that he did so to protect himself.
Prescott agreed, saying he felt his reputation was being unfairly maligned. He also said he expected Sona to expose the deal to reporters and he wanted to release the news himself.
It would be good for Prescott if his former friend was convicted, Boxall suggested.
“Only if he’s guilty,” Prescott replied.