Deepening shades of Watergate in Robocalls Voter Suppression Scandal

Deepening shades of Watergate in Robocalls Voter Suppression Scandal

Ottawa : Canada | Apr 18, 2012 at 1:53 PM PDT
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Jenni from the (Langevin) Block

"From those wonderful folks who brought you the Accountability Act..."

How deliciously ironic that the noose of accountability appears to be tightening around the political neck of the Conservative Party of Canada this week.

After a prolonged hiatus—dare we call it a mini-prorogation--of Parliament following the slash-and-burn March 29th Tory budget, quickly followed by the resounding thud of defence minister Peter MacKay’s credibility hitting the tarmac with the $10 billion F-35 “accounting” debacle, we are thrust back to the Robocalls, er, make that “voter suppression” scandal.

This time the caper has resurged with more leaked reports emanating from the Elections Canada investigation, as its gumshoes pursue the identity of the pimpernalian “Pierre Poutine” in hopes of finally providing an answer to Canadian voters as to whether or not the 2011 election was fatally rigged.

On Monday night, the investigative journalists at—not Woodward and Bernstein--tossed another few pearls of conjecture before their online web readers, suggesting Elections Canada had traced a number of telephone calls made on the eve of the May 2, 2011 federal election from the service-providing RackNine company in Calgary back to the so-called “war room” in none other than the Conservatives’ national campaign headquarters in the Nation’s Capital.

According to the unnamed and unconfirmed leaks, Elections Canada snoops are looking into the records kept of the Constituency Information Management System (CIMS), a the highly secretive and secure computer database that the Conservative Party of Canada created and maintains to keep tabs on the personal views and voting preferences of virtually every voter in every sought-after electoral constituency in the country.

Paging Rose Mary Woods

More specifically, they are said to be after an explanation as to why a portion of the CIMS records appear to be blank, and by implication of some, at least, expurgated. According to Global News, “the logs show blanks between this person's CIMS logon and logoff on the day the Guelph data was accessed, according to the source.”

One call, in particular, is said to have been made on May 1st, 2011, from a number attributed to one “Chris Rougier,” Tory staffer charged with supervision of the Party’s “voter relations” from his office at the Tory national office at 130 Albert Street in Ottawa. Rougier, according to the same Global report, worked as “a key member of the target seat team, working directly under campaign manager Jenni Byrne.”

It was Rougier’s job, apparently, to “liaise” with companies like RackNine during the course of the election campaign and, again according to Global’s report, the May 1st call “is the only one the party has failed to explain in detail to reporters, in spite of repeated requests.”

And so the Robocalls fickle finger of electoral misadventure points back in the direction of the self-same Conservative Party of Canada national office. And casts a light on the soft underbelly of the Harper Government’s ideological and political nerve centre.

Jenni from the (Langevin) Block...

The aforementioned Jenni Byrne is a media-shy case in point. The mid-30s politico hails from the forested community of Fenelon Falls, Ontario, and is a relatively youthful political animal of some repute, at least within in the corridors of power in Ottawa.

Notably, we are led to believe, Ms. Byrne fancies herself an outspoken proponent of the Newfoundland seal-hunt. So much so, it seems, that at one time a photo of a man clubbing or about-to-club a baby seal adorned her Facebook profile. And if being a wannabe baby seal murderer wasn’t endearing enough, Byrne also proudly displays the specially designed baby seal coshing weapon called a hakapik on her desk in Conservative Party headquarters.

"The most influential woman in Ottawa" keeps a baby seal club on her desk

As Stephen Harper’s rookie but hand-picked national campaign manager last year—although it is reported she was not his “first pick”, and a former girlfriend/significant/other/partner to Ottawa area Tory MP and Harper loyalist, Pierre Poilievre--the 30-something Byrne enjoys a “fearsome reputation” in her albeit abbreviated political journey to the House on the Hill.

In the same deferential terms, national columnists have variously but cautiously described Byrne as “fiery,” a Conservative loyalist,” “the most influential woman in political Ottawa”, “feared and fearless,” possessed of “a volcanic temper with a penchant for yelling at cabinet ministers, staffers and senior bureaucrats alike,” and again, “fiercely loyal to the Prime Minister.”

Still another intimate portrait of the PM’s campaign manager comes courtesy of still another anonymous but purportedly high-placed Tory:

She has cultivated a reputation where most people are terrified of being on the wrong side of her…" says a senior Conservative official who knows her well. No wonder then that many of her colleagues who were interviewed for this article asked not to be identified. Ms. Byrne refused to be interviewed.

But the consensus is among even those lack the cojones to say so publicly that Byrne was picked for the position because she was judged by the lean and minority-fatigued PM during the prorogation era “to get the job done”, meaning get Harper an electoral majority by hook or by crook.

Like most in the Harper inner circle, Byrne is an ideological chip off the old block, though perhaps with more “zeal” than her famously drab and cold-blooded leader. Like the PM, who hails originally from the white-bread inner-burb of Leaside, Byrne is an anti-government Ontario-bred zealot who regularly uses her Twitter account to chide such standby “big government” conspiracies as the long-gun registry (“Stop treating farmers and hunters like criminals,” Byrne tweeted earlier this month even though the registry is now all but a dead letter outside of Quebec.)

As the Conservative Party’s director of political operations since 2009, following her stint as a “public servant” in the regular army of the Prime Minister’s Office, Byrne has managed several by-elections, including four winning efforts, so she has an astute from-the-ground-up and hands-on campaign experience.

As part of her baptism, she served loyally as an assistant to Senator Doug Finley, who was charged in the Elections Expenses Act scandal that arose from the “in-out” financing employed by the Tories during the 2006 federal campaign. Though she apparently eschews publicity, Byrne most recently came to the attention of the media when she issued an unequivocal denial of any Conservative Party involvement in the Robocalls affair.

The extent to which Byrne’s personality may prove both an asset and liability is borne out by the reviews of one of Stephen Harper’s own mentors, Tom Flanagan, himself no stranger to being skewered by his own verbal excesses who conceded shortly after her selection as campaign commandant that Byrne had “to put some of the temper behind her."

If the foregoing outline leaves one with the impression that Ms. Byrne is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s inner circle, your powers of perception have not deserted you. Earlier in her stint as a promising and upwardly bound Tory functionary, Byrne was accused of sending an e-mail to her then boss, Doug Finlay, in which she savoured the prospect of tormenting an Ottawa Tory candidate for refusing to withdraw from the Ottawa South constituency’s nomination contest in favour of a “star candidate” handpicked by Tory headquarters. “I would love to make (him) sweat,” Byrne allegedly told her boss in the e-mail.

Byrne, who was described by her own crew shortly after being hired for the campaign boss’ job as "wickedly partisan," also figured more centrally at an earlier stage of the Robocalls affair when she is said to have intervened and persuaded Conservative MP Eve Adams to sack Michael Sona, the parliamentary aide who was initially (and, many believe, unfairly and prematurely) fingered as the lone gunman in the scandal.

Sona, who worked on the Tory campaign in the Guelph constituency where the scandal first arose, had initially been spared from walking the plank but reportedly suffered a reversal of fortunes when Byrne allegedly called Adams and persuaded her that Sona had to go. Needless to say, it is now thought by many Robocalls observers, after successive reports revealing the extent and sophistication of the automated-calls conspiracy, that Sona could not “have acted alone.”

That sentiment was expressed to none other than Ms. Byrne’s erstwhile paramour, Pierre Poilievre during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 12th, 2012 by Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie NDP member Alexandre Boulerice:

Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives' confusing and clumsy explanations for the fraud that occurred in the riding of Guelph are so far-fetched that we get the impression we are listening to Réjean on La Petite Vie. From the beginning, they have been trying to lead us to believe that a single activist orchestrated an election fraud of this magnitude without any help, as though Michael Sona had the money, computer resources or access to the lists he would require to organize thousands of fraudulent calls. It does not make any sense.

Do the Conservatives really believe in this ridiculous theory that a single volunteer transformed into an election super villain? If not, who on the other side of the House are they trying to protect?

Mr. Poilievre: Mr. Speaker, I humbly suggest that it is time for the party to apologize for its actions. I have here a document from the Commissioner of Canada Elections that says:

The contracting party in question is the New Democratic Party. That party broke the law. I urge the hon. member to rise and apologize to Canadians.

Mr. Boulerice: Mr. Speaker, the people who should be apologizing are those who pled guilty to using the in and out scheme in 2006 and who stole from Canadians. When Michael Sona submitted his resignation to the Parliamentary Secretary for Veterans Affairs but she initially refused to accept it. That makes sense, because it is ridiculous to believe that a single employee engineered massive electoral fraud, but according to the Globe and Mail, Jenni Byrne, the Conservative Party's director of political operations, called the parliamentary secretary shortly thereafter. She must have been very persuasive, because the resignation was suddenly accepted.

Can anyone on the government side tell us what Jenni Byrne knows but is refusing to disclose at this time?

Mr. Poilievre: Mr. Speaker, I just told him that his party admitted to contravening the Canada Elections Act by trying to send money to the Broadbent Institute and force taxpayers to foot the bill with the tax credit. The New Democrats have already had to apologize for the false allegations made by the hon. member for Winnipeg. Now I think the New Democrats should rise in the House to apologize for breaking the law and breaching Canadians' trust.

Bring on the law-talking guys

All of this flies somewhat in the face of assurances from the Party’s head law-talking guy, Arthur Hamilton, that none of the Robocalls taint extends to the Conservative Party leadership.

Hamilton acted as counsel for the Tories in their expansive Elections Canada files, most recently in the 2006 election “in-out” financing scandal that led to a successful prosecution against the Party culminating in a guilty plea and $25,000 fine in return for individual charges against the likes of Senator Finley—the 2006 Harper campaign manager—being withdrawn.

LOON stalwarts may recall, albeit from reading other sources, that it was Hamilton who was called in by the PM himself to “get to the bottom” of the affair back in March, and who very quickly—precipitously, perhaps—declared that nobody in the Party outside of the Guelph constituency in which the Robocalls scandal first emerged was involved.

For many above the baby-boomer cutoff, the parallels to Watergate are too tempting to resist. Like his lugubrious U.S. counterpart, Richard Nixon, our Prime Minister Stephen Harper has responded to the first whiffs of the brewing political stink by foisting his junior officers and counsel on the media armed with glib denials and occasional tinges of righteous indignation.

And like Richard Nixon, or “Tricky Dick” as his detractors never tired of tagging him, our PM has found himself having to quell rumours and worse about an alleged “electronic gap” in the only records that might convincingly prove his own and his supporters' repeated claims that there is “nothing” to the scandal but partisan sour grapes.

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"I am not a crook."
The parallels between the Watergate and Robocalls scandals are becoming more and more evident...
looncanada is based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and is a Stringer on Allvoices.
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