We may have put a whole other election between us and it, but the robocall scandal returns to the foreground today when the parties arrive at Osgood Hall to appeal the sentence of Michael Sona. The Tory staffer has tried and convicted of “preventing or endeavouring to prevent an elector from voting” back in 2014, but according to his appeal, Sona’s been either punished too harshly, or, according to Crown, his nine month prison sentence is too light.
The factum filed by Sona’s attorney said that the original sentence handed down by Justice Gary Hearn “exceeded what was necessary to achieve the objectives of denunciation and deterrence. The conduct here was clearly very grave, but given his youth and the significant personal consequences Mr. Sona has endured, this was an ideal case for a conditional sentence of imprisonment or a short, sharp jail sentence.”
At the time the full extent of the scandal broke, Sona was a staffer for then-Conservative MP and cabinet minister Eve Adams. He resigned from his position when a source told Sun News that he was the mysterious Pierre Poutine that arranged the robocall to 7,000 some-odd Guelph households redirecting them to a different polling station than on their voter information cards. Sona maintain his innocence through the trial. The defense factum though calls Sona “a good young man of great promise was brought to his knees as a result of his terrible decision—taken in the context of a pressure-cooker political campaign—to take part in this offence.”
Still, the factum says that “despite the seriousness of the offence, there was clear evidence of Mr. Sona’s previous good character,” and that ” it was apparent that Mr. Sona, a 22 year-old shouldering considerable responsibility, lost his moral bearings during a campaign that had developed a ‘siege mentality.’ Mr. Sona was a young man who, as the trial judge concluded, got carried away in a tense, hyper-partisan atmosphere that, at the time, he obviously did not have the maturity to cope with.”
In one shocking excerpt from a transcript included in the factum, the stress of the case and being a person of interest took a nearly deadly toll on the defendant. “In the pre-sentence report, Mr. Sona revealed that he had struggled with periods of stress and depression,” it reads. “Most striking, in approximately 2012, he attempted suicide. Fortunately, the gun jammed.”
Despite the hardship, the factum also noted that “Mr. Sona took the interview process seriously,” it said. “He was cooperative and stated he would be respectful of the ultimate outcome of the court process. He expressed sentiments that endorsed and valued democracy and the legal system.”
In his August 2014 decision Hearn said that on the “balance of evidence” he was satisfied that Sona “was a party to” and had aided and abetted the May 2, 2011 robocall scheme, even though Sona himself was not solely responsible. In his decision Judge Heard said that, “Sona was actively involved as the creator of the plan,” and, “while the evidence is not sufficient that Mr. Sona ‘pulled the trigger,’ he played an active role in putting the process into motion.”
In a strange alignment of circumstances, the Crown is also appealing and has filed their own factum. In it, they note that “Sona did not testify at trial, called no evidence on sentence, and declined to dicuss the offence with the author of the pre-sentence report. He relied on character letters and his counsel’s submission that this had been a ‘prank.’ The trial judge explicitly rejected this characterization of the crime.”
The Crown is pushing for a harsher sentence on the grounds that “assaults on democratic institutions require strong sentences,” and that Justice Hearn “lost sight of this crime’s two constituent components: (i) large-scale fraud on the public; and (ii) the deliberate subversion of democracy and the rule of law.” Because the Crown defines this as a large scale fraud, they believe it requires the sentence of a large scale fraud, and that is a prison sentence of three to five years.
On top of that, the Crown notes that Sona showed no regret for his actions, that he bragged about the crime, mocked Francophone Quebecers by coining the Pierre Poutine identity, has made no effort to apologize or make amends, and continues to shield another perpetrator. The evidence presented in the case showed that someone at the headquarters of Conservative candidate Marty Burke was accessing the CIMS database, while a second person was buying prepaid credit cards that were later used to pay for the services of RackNine, the phone bank that made the robocalls. No other person has ever been identified as a co-conspirator, and Elections Canada closed the case in 2014.
“These aggravating factors, coupled with the scope and sophistication of the fraud called for a penitentiary term,” said the Crown’s factum. “As the trial judge found, this was no momentary prank. It was a calculated conspiracy amongst politically sophisticated individuals to alter the outcome of a federal election by fraud.”
The other big argument of the Crown’s case is that Sona has done irreparable harm to Canada’s democracy. “As Canadians, we like to think of our democracy as one of the fairest and freest in the world,” the factum said. “Large-scale attempts to subvert elections were, prior to this, mostly unthinkable. Because of Sona’s actions, the possibility of mass electoral fraud is now part of the political awareness of Canadians.
No decision will likely be made on either of the appeals in the Sona case today, but will likely be leveled by the Court of Appeal in the weeks, and months to come.
In other recent court action, Kornelis Klevering, the Marijuana Party candidate in 2011, has been at the forefront of keeping the robocall case in the news. His last move, a leave to appeal, to was denied by the Supreme Court of Canada in December, which followed the Federal Court of Appeal’s refusal to hear the case last summer saying that Klevering waited too long to file the initial appeal of the 2011 election results. His original Supreme Court appeal was denied in 2013.
“Such gross interference is a first in Canadian electoral history, and I want the Court to determine if such an occurrence violated what is considered and upheld to be a free and fair election,” Klevering said to the Mercury at the time.