‘Robocalls’ tried to discourage voters
By Stephen Maher And Glen McGregor, Postmedia News February 23, 2012 6:08 AM
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.
Also, 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 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 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 Rack-nine, 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 its auto-mated service, Meier said. He estimates 10 million or more phone calls from about 200 accounts went out during the campaign.
COOPERATING WITH PROBE
Meier and his company are cooperating 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 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-dialling 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.
“What I provided to Elections Canada was comprehensive,” Meier 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 Election Canada investigator Al Mathews showed up unannounced at his company’s office in Edmonton in November, armed with an order to produce records.
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 a 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 Val-eriote got a call at his home, telling him his campaign staff was hearing from Liberal sup-porters about the same kind of bogus Elections Canada calls.
What they first thought were a few nuisance calls, the Vale-riote 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 sup-porters back to the right place. Within an hour, more than 100 voters had turned up at the mall.
Despite the dirty tricks phone calls, Valeriote won the election in Guelph.
If Mathews and the Commissioner of Canada Elections find evidence of wrongdoing over the bogus calls, the case could be referred to Director of Public Prosecutions Brian Saunders, who would decide whether to lay charges.
HOW RACKNINE’S CALLS WORK
1. The customer sends identification and credit card information to the company for approval. Once approved, the customer is given an account name and password.
2. Through the company’s web interface, the customer uploads an electronic list of telephone numbers to call.
3. The customer uploads a file with the prerecorded message or calls in to a toll-free number to record the call. The customer can set the caller ID to any number.
4. The service automatically “robocalls” numbers on the call list, charging the customer between 1.9 and 3.5 cents per minute for the calls.
FOLLOWING THE TRAIL
1. An investigator interviewed recipients of the calls in Guelph. They provided the incoming caller ID that displayed.
2. The investigator found that the caller ID belonged to a disposable cellphone with a number in Joliette, Que.
3. The investigator issues a subpoena for the outgoing calls from the phone. One call is to the Racknine toll-free number.
4. Elections Canada files subpoenas for billing records that trace the inbound calls to recipients in Guelph through data carriers used by Racknine.
5. The investigator obtains a production order that requires Racknine to hand over records that identify which account made the calls and the records associated with the account.
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