Anything’s possible

Conservative campaign worker Andrew Prescott has agreed to give evidence in Elections Canada's investigation into widespread tampering with the 2011 general election.

Conservative campaign worker Andrew Prescott has agreed to give evidence in Elections Canada’s investigation into widespread tampering with the 2011 general election. Prescott promises to give “full and complete testimony” in return for immunity from prosecution.

Like the Conservative Party itself, Prescott has always maintained his innocence in the robocalls scandal and, like the party, he has up till now refused to cooperate with the EC investigation. Under Canada’s elections act, the regulator has no authority to compel testimony, and one after another Conservatives have refused to meet with investigators.

The handful of junior staffers who have been permitted to submit to interviews did so under the strict supervision of party lawyer Arthur Hamilton. By all accounts, their testimony was curiously similar.

On election day in May 2011, a number of Canadian voters received automated calls attempting to send them to the wrong polling stations. The highest concentration of these voters appears to have been in Guelph, Ontario. The people who got these calls had one thing in common: they had identified themselves to Conservative Party canvassers as supporters of other parties.

A subsequent investigation connected the calls to RackNine, an Edmonton firm with ties to the Conservatives. From there, the trail led to a burner cell phone purchased under the now-infamous pseudonym of Pierre Poutine, and to Prescott’s computer at Guelph Conservative campaign headquarters.

Last May, Federal Court Justice Richard Mosely found that “there was an orchestrated effort to suppress votes during the 2011 election campaign by a person or persons with access to the CIMS database.” The CIMS database belongs to the Conservative Party. It is closely guarded, only available to senior staff, and there is no indication that it has ever been hacked. Despite these facts, the Conservatives deny any involvement in the scheme to cheat non-Conservative voters out of their right to vote.

Mosely was hearing a case brought by the Council of Canadians against six Conservative MPs, including the Yukon’s Ryan Leef, alleging that illegal robocalls in their ridings had helped them win in close-fought races. The case failed, not for lack of evidence that the calls occurred, but because it was impossible to prove that they had been effective in turning away enough voters to affect the outcome of the election.

Arthur Hamilton, representing the Conservatives, was criticized by the judge for engaging in procedural tricks and ad hominem attacks against witnesses. In his judgement Mosely complained that “the respondent MPs engaged in trench warfare in an effort to prevent this case from coming to a hearing on the merits.”

Michael Sona, campaign communications director for Marty Burke, the Conservative candidate in Guelph, has been charged with “wilfully preventing or endeavouring to prevent a voter from casting a ballot,” for his alleged involvement in hundreds of robocalls in the Guelph riding. Facing a possible prison term, Sona has told the media that he is being scapegoated, and has tweeted that he “won’t take the fall” for his party.

As anyone who has ever watched a cop show on TV knows, immunity agreements do not exist to protect the innocent. Accused criminals seek immunity from prosecution when they know there is evidence that could link them to the crime. Also, immunity doesn’t come cheap. Suspects without information to trade that could convict someone guiltier, or higher up the criminal ladder, need not apply.

Newspaper columnists are almost as constrained as judges when it comes to declaring parties guilty of crimes before all the evidence is in. In the press, as in court, you can’t call someone guilty unless you can prove it. And who knows? The CPC and its operatives may be completely innocent of trying to subvert the 2011 election, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

It makes no difference that the Conservatives have a history of serious criminal breach of the Elections Act. During the 2006 election, party brass engineered the in-and-out scheme, involving 67 pliant candidates, to get around election spending limits. The party plea-bargained and paid the maximum fine, in a deal that gave four senior members immunity from charges that carried possible prison sentences.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the party is guilty this time. Possibly, the CPC has changed its ways since 2006. Maybe having to pay fines of $52,000 had a rehabilitating effect, and left campaign workers and politicians alike determined to win the 2011 election on the strength of their policies, and the power of their attack ads.

But then, who is responsible for the robocalls? Wait. I think I’ve got it. No doubt, foreign-funded radicals hired some wizard who hates freedom and loves taxes to spirit the CIMS data away and use it to embarrass the government. Maybe the Conservatives are completely innocent in this affair.

Hey, who knows? Anything is possible.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.