August 14, 2014 / 4:54 PM / in 3 years

Ex-staffer of Canada's ruling Conservatives guilty in robocalls case

OTTAWA (Reuters) - A former official of Canada’s governing Conservative Party was found guilty on Thursday of orchestrating an illegal robocall campaign during the last election, in the first case of its kind in Canada.

A judge in Guelph, Ontario, said the official, Michael Sona, was at least partly responsible for around 7,000 automated phone calls made on election day in May 2011. The calls falsely told voters that the locations of their polling stations had changed.

At the time, Sona worked for the Conservative candidate in Guelph, who failed to win the seat from the opposition Liberals.

Sona, who denied he was involved with the calls, faces up to five years in prison after a judge found him guilty on one charge of preventing voters from casting their ballots. He will appear in court at a sentencing hearing on Oct 17.

The Conservatives came to power in early 2006 stressing the need for more accountability in federal politics. Polls show the party could be defeated in the next election, which is due in October 2015.

The party denied it had been involved in the robocalls campaign.

“Voter suppression is extremely serious and those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said spokesman Cory Hann. “The Conservative Party ran a clean and ethical campaign.”

Sona’s lawyer, Norm Boxall, said he would study the judgment carefully and declined to say whether he would appeal.

Elections Canada, the federal agency responsible for running elections, brought the case against Sona.

The agency eventually received complaints about fraudulent or misleading calls in 247 of Canada’s 308 electoral constituencies in the 2011 election.

It concluded in April 2014 there was not enough evidence to provide reasonable grounds that an offense had been committed, with the exception of the Sona case.

Judge Gary Hearn told the court he was sure that others were involved in the Guelph affair. The manager of the Conservative campaign in Guelph moved to Kuwait after the election and declined to speak to investigators.

“A real court found a Conservative operative guilty of a real crime, judge says more than one person involved. Time to come clean, Conservative Party,” tweeted Karl Belanger, a senior aide to the leader of the official opposition New Democrats.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay declined to comment on the case when pressed by reporters.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway

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