TORONTO — The case of a former Conservative staffer convicted in the 2011 federal election robocalls scandal is going before Ontario's highest court this week.
Michael Sona is asking Ontario's Court of Appeal to impose a sentence less than the nine months in jail he received in November 2014.
But Crown prosecutors are simultaneously asking the court to send Sona to jail for 20 months, arguing his earlier sentence wasn't harsh enough given the seriousness of his crime.
"This was both a sophisticated, large-scale fraud, and a concerted attempt to subvert a democratic election,'' the Crown argued in a factum filed with the court. "The Crown appeals and asks this court to powerfully denounce and deter such direct assault on our most fundamental democratic institutions — the right to vote.''
Michael Sona paid for and organized robocalls for the 2011 Tory candidate in Guelph. (Photo: HuffPost Canada)
Sona — now 26 and currently out on bail after spending 13 days behind bars — was the first person convicted of wilfully preventing or endeavouring to prevent an elector from voting under the Canada Elections Act.
The trial judge who sentenced him said he believed Sona did not act alone in a scheme in which some 6,700 automated phone calls were placed on the morning of the 2011 federal election, largely to numbers in Guelph, Ont., wrongly telling people their polling station had been moved to a different location.
The calls were organized and paid for by Sona, who was the director of communications for the Tory candidate in Guelph, and targeted people believed to be "non-supporters of the Conservative party,'' the Crown noted.
Political staffers testified at Sona's trial that the then 22-year-old had boasted about the scheme after the election.
"Many of the victims also said that they will never again feel comfortable expressing their political views or allegiances for fear of being targeted again in the same way.''
"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 Crown argued. "Many of the victims also said that they will never again feel comfortable expressing their political views or allegiances for fear of being targeted again in the same way.''
The Crown suggested the judge at Sona's trial lost sight of two major components of the crime which call for a higher sentence — a large scale fraud on the public and the deliberate subversion of democracy and the rule of law.
"This crime was callous and profoundly harmful,'' the Crown argued. "The sentence failed to bring that home either to Sona or to others possibly eager to unleash their own creatively crafted dirty political tricks.''
Sona's lawyer, however, argued that his client's nine-month sentence exceeded what was necessary for denunciation and deterrence.
A 'good young man brought to his knees'
Howard Krongold suggested the trial judge made three errors in coming to his sentence — overemphasizing general deterrence, finding that there was no evidence of rehabilitation, and failing to consider the effect of any sentence of imprisonment on similarly situated individuals.
Describing Sona as a "good young man brought to his knees'' by his conviction, Sona's lawyer suggested a sentence of between 30-90 days or a longer conditional sentence — typically house arrest — would be appropriate.
"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 or a short, sharp jail sentence,'' Krongold wrote in a factum submitted to the appeal court.
Sona was driven by "partisan fervour and emotion, not greed'' and "lost his moral bearings during a campaign that developed a 'siege mentality,''' Krongold argued.
"Stepping into a jail cell for any duration is — both symbolically and practically — a profoundly harsh punishment for someone who has come from where Mr. Sona has come from and has fallen as far as he has."
The entire case has taken a significant toll on Sona, Krongold added, noting that his client has struggled with periods of stress and depression and even attempted suicide in 2012.
"Against the backdrop of what Mr. Sona has gone through, stepping into a jail cell for any duration is — both symbolically and practically — a profoundly harsh punishment for someone who has come from where Mr. Sona has come from and has fallen as far as he has,'' Krongold wrote.