Elections Canada investigating ‘robocalls’ that misled voters
Elections Canada has traced fraudulent phone calls made during the federal election to an Edmonton voice-broadcast company that worked for the Conservative Party across the country.
While the agency investigates, aided by the RCMP, the Conservatives are conducting an internal probe. A party lawyer is interviewing campaign workers to find who was behind the deceptive “robocalls.”
Elections Canada launched its investigation after it was inundated with complaints about election day calls in Guelph, Ont., one of 18 ridings across the country where voters were targeted by harassing or deceptive phone messages in an apparent effort to discourage Liberal supporters from voting.
In Guelph, a riding the Conservatives hoped to take from the Liberals, voters received recorded calls pretending to be from Elections Canada, telling them their polling stations had been moved. The calls led to a chaotic scene at one polling station, and likely led some voters to give up on voting.
Postmedia News and the Ottawa Citizen have found that Elections Canada traced the calls to Racknine Inc., a small Edmonton call centre that worked for the party’s national campaign and those of at least nine Conservative candidates, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s own campaign in Calgary Southwest. There is no evidence that Harper’s campaign or any of the other candidates were involved in the calls.
Racknine says it was unaware its servers were being used for the fake calls.
Fred DeLorey, a spokesman for the Conservative Party, declined to say how much business the party did with Racknine during the campaign. He said the party does not know who was behind the calls, and he did not respond to a question about its internal investigation.
Elections Canada came to Racknine after an elaborate digital chase that began with a single telephone number that showed up on call displays. Investigators traced it to a disposable “burner” cellphone registered in area code 450, in the city of Joliette, northeast of Montreal.
Using telephone billing records and Racknine server logs, Elections Canada investigators identified the Racknine account holder who sent out the calls.
Matt Meier, owner of Racknine, said he was unaware one of his customers was involved in the calls until contacted by Elections Canada in November.
“We couldn’t possibly have known that it was Racknine that was the initiator of the fake calls,” he said. “I had no idea what the content of the calls were.”
The company does not monitor outgoing calls made by customers through the automated service, Meier said. He estimates 10 million or more phone calls from about 200 accounts went out during the campaign.
Meier and his company are co-operating fully with the probe, he said.
He said he knows whose account was used for the calls, but could not reveal the owner, because of client confidentiality and concerns about interfering with the investigation. He said it was someone “down East” – meaning Ontario or Quebec.
The RCMP’s role in the investigation is unclear but it appears the force is assisting Elections Canada. RCMP officers have approached the Conservative Party, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The robocalls received in Guelph were recorded in female voices in both French and English. They told voters their polling stations had moved to a shopping mall in the city’s downtown, where parking was scarce.
A Citizen-Postmedia investigation has found calls misdirecting voters were also reported in ridings across the country: Kitchener-Waterloo, Kitchener-Conestaga, London-West, Parkdale-High Park, Winnipeg South Centre and Sydney-Victoria. It is possible that they were caused by robo-dialing errors.
Liberal supporters in a dozen ridings, mostly in Ontario, reported mysterious harassing calls, often late in the evening or early in the morning, where rude callers from a phone bank pretended to be working for the Liberals. The calls seem to have been an attempt to alienate Liberal voters in ridings where the Liberals and Conservatives seemed to be in close contests.
The continuing Elections Canada probe is led by former RCMP fraud investigator Al Mathews, who previously worked on investigations of former Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski and former prime minister Brian Mulroney in the Airbus affair.
The Conservatives’ internal investigation is being conducted by Arthur Hamilton, who has been the party’s lead lawyer for years, making representations to the Gomery Commission and investigating MP Helena Guergis and Rahim Jaffer for the party in the “busty hookers” saga.
Hamilton did not respond to a request for comment, but sources say he is interviewing people who worked on the Conservative campaign.
“It seems (investigators) have identified somebody who did it, knowingly,” said one Conservative who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In addition to Racknine’s work for Alberta Conservative candidates in the federal election, Meier also has been involved with the provincial Wildrose Party in Alberta. Racknine’s voice-broadcasting service, marketed as 2call.ca, hosted a hospitality suite at the most recent Conservative convention in Ottawa in June.
Meier says the firm is non-partisan and is trying to help Elections Canada.
“What I provided to Elections Canada was comprehensive,” he said in an interview this week. “They know everything. They have every single message recorded by the individuals who did this. That’s something I hope will assist them greatly in determining who made these calls.”
He realized his firm was linked to the deceptive calls only when Mathews showed up unannounced at his company’s office on 50th Street in Edmonton last November, armed with an order to produce records.
Elections Canada spokesman John Enright said the commissioner does not comment on ongoing investigations but confirmed an investigation into “some complaints regarding unsolicited telephone calls in which a violation of the (Elections) Act may have occurred.”
Mathews has travelled to Guelph to interview people who received the calls on election day, including United Church minister Sue Campbell, who was the wife of Green Party candidate John Lawson.
Campbell had just returned home after voting on the morning of election day when a call came in saying her polling station had been moved to the Quebec Street Mall in downtown Guelph.
“At first, I thought. ‘Oh, that’s strange,'” Campbell recalls. “Upon reflection, I thought, ‘This can’t be right. Why on Earth would it change on the day election?'”
She wrote down the digits on the caller ID – the number in Quebec – and called Elections Canada to complain.
Internal Elections Canada emails obtained under Access to Information legislation show officials were rattled by the calls.
At 11:06 a.m., election officer Anita Hawdur sent an email to to legal counsel Karen McNeil with the header: “URGENT Conservative campaign office communications with electors.” Hawdur reported that returning officers were calling to ask about the calls. McNeil responded by asking Hawdur to alert Rennie Molnar, the deputy chief electoral officer. He later emailed Michel Roussel, a senior director: “This one is far more serious. They have actually disrupted the voting process.”
Around the same time, Guelph Liberal MP Frank Valeriote got a call at his home, telling him that his campaign staff was hearing from Liberal supporters in the riding about the same kind of bogus Elections Canada calls.
What they first thought were a few nuisance calls, the Valeriote campaign recognized was an orchestrated campaign to discourage his supporters from voting.
Voters who ended up in the wrong place and were turned away were unlikely to persist and go to another polling station. A campaign worker was quickly dispatched to the mall, armed with a binder of polling maps, so he could redirect supporters back to the right place. Within an hour, more than 100 voters had turned up at the mall.
The phoney calls also were causing headaches for campaign staff working for Conservative candidate Marty Burke’s campaign. Radio stations were passing on a warning from Elections Canada about the erroneous messages.
Long-distance phone bills obtained by the Citizen and Postmedia show that the Guelph campaign called Matt Meier’s cellphone once at 11:08 a.m. and then the Racknine main number at 7:11 p.m.
Andrew Prescott, a volunteer with the Burke campaign, used Racknine to send out calls warning supporters about fake Election Canada messages.
Though he used Racknine to make these calls, there is no indication Prescott was involved in the original mischief.
“I was not involved in the illegal phone calls. I am a legitimate user of Racknine’s services, and have been for several years,” he said in an email. “I am a devoted believer in free and fair elections. I would never partake in ANY illegal activities, and openly advocate for everyone to play by the rules.”
Meier confirmed Prescott’s story and said he is satisfied Prescott was not involved in the fake Elections Canada calls.
Reached Wednesday, Burke referred calls about the matter to Michael Sona, who was his director of communications during the campaign and now works for Conservative MP Eve Adams. Sona did not respond to a series of questions about the matter.
Sona made headlines during the Guelph campaign when he was accused of trying to shut down a special ballot on the University of Guelph campus. Witnesses said he tried to grab a ballot box, arguing that the voting process was illegal.
Hamilton later sent a letter to Elections Canada asking that the votes in that box be ruled invalid. Elections Canada allowed them to be counted.
Despite the dirty tricks phone calls, Valeriote won the election in Guelph and increased his margin of victory over 2008, to more than 6,000 votes.
Two weeks after the election, Mathews came to Guelph and interviewed Campbell at his suite in the Holiday Inn, recording her statement and taking careful notes. She said she understood he was also speaking to others in Guelph who had received the calls.
If Mathews and the Commissioner of Canada Elections find evidence of wrongdoing over the bogus Elections Canada calls, the case could be referred to Director of Public Prosecutions Brian Saunders, who would decide whether to lay charges.
That’s the same route followed when Elections Canada discovered attempts by the Conservatives to evade the spending cap on the 2006 campaign by purchasing advertising funded through a series of co-ordinated wire transfers into and out of candidate accounts. The party pleaded guilty to Election Act breaches last year.
Transcript of the bogus call sent to a voter in Guelph on federal election day, May 2, 2011:
“This is an automated message from Elections Canada. Due to a projected increase in voter turnout, your poll location has been changed. Your new voting location is at the Old Quebec Street Mall, at 55 Wyndham Street North. Once again, your new poll location is at the Old Quebec Street Mall, at 55 Wyndham Street North. If you have any questions, please call our hotline at 1-800-443-4456. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. (French version recorded in another woman’s voice follows.)”