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Accused in robocalls case thanked 'Pierre' after election win, witness testifies

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GUELPH, Ont. - In the early voting hours of election day in 2011, Michael Sona — an eager young campaign worker now on trial for allegedly orchestrating a misleading series of political robocalls — jubilantly declared, "It's working," a star Crown witness testified Wednesday.

What's more, said former friend Andrew Prescott, that same night Sona was chomping on a cigar, toasting a Stephen Harper majority win and giving "thanks to Pierre" — an apparent reference to the pseudonym used to perpetrate the fraud.

Prescott's testimony brought into sharp focus the crux of the Crown's case against Sona, now 25, charged with "wilfully preventing or endeavouring to prevent an elector from voting" and facing a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

By day's end, court had also heard from Rebecca Dockstaeder, a Conservative staffer on Parliament Hill who said Sona regaled her with an elaborate, triumphant story about his scheme to misdirect non-Conservative supporters.

Sona described in detail how he bought an untraceable pre-paid credit card and pre-paid phone with a fake name, and called in a favour to get local phone numbers for Liberal supporters, Dockstaeder testified.

He said he even took the phone apart and disposed of the pieces at various locations to reduce the chances of getting caught, she added.

"It was very clear from the way he told the story that he took full credit for the careful assembly of the plan, taking into account that nothing from the plan could be traced back to him," Dockstaeder said.

He felt he'd covered his tracks well enough to share the story, she added.

"He seemed to be incredibly impressed with himself. He felt he'd been meticulous, that it was a very well thought-out plan and he was impressed with the results."

Under cross-examination, Sona's lawyer Norm Boxall suggested Dockstaeder's memory had been influenced by media reports. Indeed, Sona was in Aruba at the time Dockstaeder originally said the encounter occurred, he noted.

"Maybe it was a couple of days later," Dockstaeder replied. "At the time I made my statement I couldn't give an exact date, so I gave the best estimation I could."

But the day's star witness was Prescott, who at the time was the deputy campaign manager for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke, and who traded immunity for his testimony against his one-time pal.

Sona is accused of launching an automated telephone campaign that rang 6,700 lines on election day aimed at giving non-Conservative supporters misleading advice on where and when to cast their ballots.

Investigators would later find the cellphone used to order the calls from Edmonton-based telemarketer RackNine Inc. was registered to a fake name, Pierre Poutine, and that the name on the RackNine account — Pierre Jones — was also bogus.

Prescott told court he was a regular RackNine user and accessed two accounts on election day. One was his own; the other was the one that was used to send out the misleading calls.

Shortly after 4 a.m., a number of workers were in the campaign office talking about the day ahead and the topic of robocalls came up, Prescott testified. Sona perked up when he heard mention that it was possible to manipulate caller ID details.

"Sona expressed a little bit of surprise and said, 'Let me understand this: you can make it appear to 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. He appeared "almost euphoric" as he said, "'It's working,'" Prescott testified.

He did not ask Sona to elaborate, he added.

Prescott also told court that he at some point saw a cheap pre-paid cellphone on Sona's desk.

Later on election day, with media outlets describing reports of fake Elections Canada calls in Guelph, Prescott said he was ordered by Burke's campaign manager, Kenneth Morgan, to log into a RackNine account he did not recognize and "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."

Burke lost to the Liberal incumbent, Frank Valeriote, but the campaign office celebrated nonetheless once it was clear the Conservatives would form a majority government.

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, Prescott admitted he wasn't fully forthcoming with the Crown until he signed his immunity agreement earlier this year. "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.

Prescott admitted he initially withheld information in order to protect himself. 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 attempted to pick holes in Prescott's testimony by highlighting inconsistencies in his interviews with the Crown and Elections Canada.

Investigators seemed particularly interested in hearing Prescott's explanation for his early morning RackNine log-in on election day. Whoever sent out the robocalls had logged in not long before Prescott did.

Boxall noted changes in how Prescott answered questions about that morning.

At one point Prescott said he was eager to talk about RackNine with the crowd of young volunteers present, because he hoped to make money acting as a consultant reselling the robocalls service.

Later, he would tell investigators — as he told court on Wednesday — that he was apprehensive about talking about robocalls because Sona's questions were suspicious.

"Although you say now, as in today, that this was suspicious and you were uneasy about it, somehow it was wiped from your memory for a couple of years?" Boxall asked.

"I chose not to think about it because I realized something bad had happened," Prescott said in attempting to explain why he was able to jog his memory long after the fact.

Sona's supposed toast to "Pierre" wasn't reported by Prescott until this past April, and the notes from his first interview with Elections Canada in 2012 say he did not recognize the name Pierre Jones, Boxall noted.

The trial continues Thursday.

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