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Knew little about client ordering Guelph calls, RackNine owner testifies

Defendant Michael Sona walks to the courthouse in Guelph, ON, Wednesday, June 4, 2014, the the Robocalls trial. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

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Defendant Michael Sona walks to the courthouse in Guelph, ON, Wednesday, June 4, 2014, the the Robocalls trial. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

GUELPH, Ont. - Despite the fact it runs a system capable of "serious damage," RackNine Inc. knew little about the person who commissioned it to conduct thousands of misleading robocalls during the 2011 federal election, the company's owner testified Tuesday.

Matt Meier, who operates the Edmonton-based high-tech telemarketer, told Michael Sona's trial in Guelph, Ont., that the company's ability to reach out to countless people at once makes it a powerful — and potentially dangerous — tool.

"The system is capable of making millions of phone calls so it's good to know who's using it," Meier said, adding it could "do serious damage."

Sona, 25, is charged with "wilfully preventing or endeavouring to prevent an elector from voting" in connection with a scheme that blitzed more than 6,700 phone numbers with misleading information about where to vote in Guelph.

If convicted, Sona faces up to five years in prison.

Meier said the customer who ordered the calls identified himself as Pierre Jones — a university student from Joliette, Que., who wanted to use the service for a school project.

Investigators would later learn the identity was fake. The cellphone used to call Meier was registered under another fake name, Pierre Poutine, and the order was paid for with untraceable prepaid credit cards.

In a followup email to the customer, Meier said he typically only worked with political campaigns, not members of the public, and asked for more information.

Meier was grilled by Sona's lawyer, Norm Boxall, about why he didn't do more digging into the unknown robocall customer's identity. Boxall also wondered why Meier would be taking calls and sending emails late on a Saturday night — when the order was first placed — for what amounted to a very small amount of money.

"It seems like high-level service, late at night, for a $50 account," Boxall said.

RackNine was built on providing exceptional customer service, Meier replied. The customer wasn't given access to calling abilities until an online payment was authorized by PayPal, which gave no signal a fraud was being perpetrated, he added.

Meier also said the majority of his business was connected to the Conservative party and came through word of mouth. The customer told Meier that the party referred him to the service and although he specified it was for school, he did not question him for further details.

On Wednesday, the trial will hear from Andrew Prescott, a fellow Conservative campaign worker of Sona's who has agreed to testify for the Crown as part of an immunity agreement.

In November 2011, Meier was visited by an Elections Canada investigator seeking information on the robocall campaign. Meier said he was immediately co-operative. Within days, court heard, he reached out to Prescott, who worked with Sona for the Conservative candidate in Guelph, Marty Burke.

Asked why he contacted Prescott, Meier said his name had come up in talking to Elections Canada and he was "curious" if he'd been contacted too.

Prescott said he knew nothing about the calls, recalled Meier, who added that he decided to cut off communications with him. But he did admit to later sending Prescott a "cutesy" sympathetic note about the media coverage surrounding the case — which Meier felt was overblown — and some emailed technical support.

Under questioning by Boxall, Meier said that a few months after first meeting with Elections Canada he was able to provide Internet protocol (IP) addresses to help tie the robocall creator to a specific location. Meier said he also shared that information with the Conservative party.

An agreed statement of facts shows the mystery RackNine user connected to the company through two different IP addresses. The first belonged to a proxy service designed to hide a user's location. The second was linked to Burke's campaign office.

Prescott also had a RackNine account under his real name and it was seen to be accessing the robocall service's website around the same time as the other user, also from Burke's campaign office. His account was not used to order the calls in Guelph.

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