How Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher broke the robocalls scandal
The journalists who uncovered Elections Canada’s investigation into fraudulent calls that misdirected voters in 2011
This story has been updated from a previous version.
After a few glasses of Côtes du Rhônes, Stephen Maher asks if we can turn the recorders off—one faces him; the other, Glen McGregor. We’re on the patio of Métropolitain, a restaurant just below Parliament Hill that’s a popular after-work hangout among political reporters and parliamentary staff. McGregor is less concerned about inappropriate chatter getting picked up as the wine flows. His tieless light grey suit looks casual compared to Maher’s black ensemble, which is accented with a striped tie. On the Hill, journalists dress more formally. The two reporters, both 48, are recounting how they uncovered one of the biggest election scandals in years when an acquaintance—one of several who have stopped to chat—approaches our table. “Plotting the next Michener, are they?”
The duo earned that award, among others, in 2012, for their coverage of the robocalls scandal. The Ottawa Citizen’s McGregor and Postmedia’s Maher broke the story that, in 2011, Elections Canada was investigating fake election-day calls that misinformed voters in Guelph, Ontario, that their polling stations had moved. Maher and McGregor’s investigation revealed voter suppression by Conservative operatives, reminding us all of the value of investigative journalism.
McGregor has been on the Hill since 1998. Maher began working there in 2004 as the bureau chief for Halifax’s The Chronicle Herald. During the 2011 federal campaign—before the robocalls story—Maher began looking into strange, harassing calls to voters in Prince Edward Island and Toronto. Following the May election, several news outlets covered the Guelph robocalls. That August, Postmedia hired Maher as a columnist. In his job interview, he told senior vice president of content and editor-in-chief Lou Clan- cy what he’d been working on. “There sure was a lot of smoke coming out,” says Clancy. “It wasn’t rocket science to think that could be a hell of a story.”
After the election, in December 2011, McGregor wrote a story about a Conservative call centre phoning Irwin Cotler’s constituents; the calls falsely implied the Montreal MP had already announced he was going to resign and asked which potential candidate his constituents would support in a by-election. McGregor downplays the story today, but Maher gives him more credit. “It got some chum into the water,” the Atlantic Canadian insists. “It started to make things move.”
Eventually, Maher convinced McGregor to join him, and the two pitched the idea of collaborating to their managing editors—Christina Spencer, then of Postmedia, and the Citizen’s Andrew Potter. “McMaher” was born.
At first, neither editor fully understood the scope of the story. “I kept thinking at some point they’ll either get something or they won’t,” recalls Potter, now the Citizen’s editor. “It wasn’t anything I was terribly excited about at the time.” Maher, meanwhile, told Spencer, “I’ve been working on this thing, and it looks like it’s kind of coming together. When do you want to talk?” She thought about it and realized it sounded “amazing.”
Colleagues use the word “dogged” to describe the pair, so it’s fitting that Spencer calls Maher a “terrier.” When it comes to interviews, the two reporters have different philosophies: Maher tries to build trust while McGregor tries to get information. Maher is the good cop and McGregor the bad, but as interviewees, the roles are reversed. There’s McGregor, who offered his iPhone recorder so I don’t have to keep moving mine back and forth. Then there’s Maher, suggesting again that we turn the recorders off, after thetwo debate why CTV’s Robert Fife—McGregor’s hero—is the most important political reporter in Canada right now. McGregor says it’s because he’s the best, while Maher suggests it’s because of CTV’s reach and influence. “If you’re the prime minister’s director of communications, you can deal with two dozen shitty stories in the Ottawa Citizen. You can tell the boss, ‘Ah, it’s those fuckin’ jerks at the Citizen again,’” says Maher. “You get one bad day at CTV National News and you are in big trouble with Mr. Harper.”
Early in their research, the pair mostly sniffed for a pattern, either geographical or among call companies. They created a spreadsheet of reported calls, assembled media reports and ran searches on Infomart and Google News. They asked campaign managers open-ended questions such as, “Did you have any strange calls?” Though McMaher hadn’t heard of anything similar targeting Conservative voters, they also talked to the Conservative Party’s director of communications, Fred DeLorey. The Guelph story had surfaced, but a pattern had not.
Investigative journalism is time-intensive and costly, and it doesn’t guarantee a story at the end. It requires patience while waiting for sources to talk and time to analyze data, chase court documents and conduct extensive research. But data journalism, which encompasses everything from developing apps to computer-assisted reporting (CAR), has made the process easier. For example, “scraping” is a time-saving technique in which specialized computer software extracts unstructured data from a website—typically in HTML format—and structures it so that it can be analyzed in a spreadsheet.
While CAR is a good example of how investigative journalism adapts to new technologies, it’s just another tool in the arsenal. Investigative reporting also depends on a newsroom culture that views it as a priority—but as newsrooms shrink, it’s often one of the first things to go. The catch: investigative journalism is crucial to setting a newspaper apart.
For reporters, gaining the trust needed to get the time to investigate a story requires a track record of “catching rabbits,” says Maher. “Every time you go down the rabbit hole for a week or a month and come back with a rabbit, your bosses look at you and say, ‘Okay, he says he wants to go back down the rabbit hole again.’”
Not all news organizations can afford to pay salaries for several months of research, but Spencer says newsrooms should foster an environment in which every reporter is an investigator. “Investigative reporting has much more to do with getting that into people’s minds than saying, ‘We’re going to create a team’ or ‘We’re going to give people six months on a project,’” she says, pointing to McMaher as an example. “Almost every story they do, even if it’s a minor story, will reveal an investigative mindset in the way they go at it.”
Catching rabbits doesn’t always mean being cleared of other work; investigative reporters still must juggle daily assignments. “Is it asking for the moon?” says CBC’s David McKie, who has used CAR for many of his investigative projects. “Yes. Are you going to get away from it? No. It’s just reality.”
McMaher work in the “hot room”—named for its characteristic buzz of activity—with fellow members of the parliamentary press gallery. And it’s actually warm in here on the third floor of Centre Block, which holds the House of Commons and the Senate. Six large windows, one featuring a dingy air conditioner, line the back wall. Four televisions suspended from the ceiling broadcast the Commons feed throughout the day. Reporters shout to each other from their desks. “It’s like being in a monkey cage,” McGregor says. The room is one giant fire hazard: 26 desks overflow with papers and books. Everything reporters need is on this floor—cafeteria, washrooms, the Commons, the Senate. They call eating lunch off the Hill “going ashore.”
McGregor and Maher sit five rows apart. Both have Mac desk- tops, though McGregor’s is balanced on a stack of three fat phone books—he’s taller—while Maher’s sits flat on his desk beside three boxes containing Deadline, his self-published political thriller, set in Ottawa.
Various pins, including one that reads “Stop Harper,” line the left side of his cubicle. Just above those, taped to a white cardboard box, is a black and white photo of Elections Canada investigator Al Mathews. In a cheeky attempt to signal to Mathews that they wanted to talk, McMaher posed beside the picture, in March 2012, for The Hill Times, a politics and government newsweekly based in Ottawa that ran a story about their work. (Mathews never agreed to McMaher’s interview requests.) In keeping with their modest sense of humour, both men have the same newspaper clipping tacked up—a headline with a comical typo: “Citizen calls McGregor and Maher ‘McMaher’: reporters who broke explosive roboballs story.”
McGregor’s order of eight oysters arrives at the table. Maher jumps at them after he learns they’re from Cooks Cove, Nova Scotia. McGregor doesn’t like to put a lot of “stuff” on them; Maher agrees that’s not the point.
“Poor you, listening to this later,” Maher says to me. “I don’t know about you, Glen, but I find that oysters . . .” The two of them start to chuckle. Maher begins asking a question, then answers it himself: “Is this going to end up in the—never mind.”
McGregor and Maher have a symbiotic relationship; each re- porter has strengths that complement those of the other. McGregor has a reputation as the data-mining mastermind—“Probably a little overblown,” Maher says, “but they say that about him.” McGregor has learned to combine data skills with storytelling. “Glen has a skill set that very few journalists have,” says Potter. “He’s the only one who knows how to do the analysis, the scraping, but also the reporting.”
Maher is the source guy, the one who develops contacts. “He knows everybody,” says Spencer. “He’s easy to talk to and knows how to make people talk.” That’s one of the reasons McGregor liked working with him. “I had gotten so far into data journalism that I wasn’t talking to human sources anymore,” he says. McGregor chased court documents and access to information requests, but the stories involved a lot of talking to people. Since there wasn’t a huge data component to robocalls, he had to get his interviewing skills “back up to snuff.”
In January 2012, McGregor obtains the Guelph campaign phone records (and learns other journalists have obtained them too). For weeks, he pores over the list, trying to determine who is be- hind the robocalls. He gets excited, believing there are about four different suspects: “This guy has gotta be it because of all these weird calls to Calgary!” But the leads are all dead ends. Then, in early February, the first big break happens: a source revealsElections Canada is looking into the robocalls. One source leads Maher to another—code-named Simone de Beauvoir—who tells him the investigation is linked to RackNine Inc., an Edmonton voice broadcast company working nationally for the Conservative Party, and confirms Mathews is going through campaign phone records. A Conservative source admits the party is rattled and conducting its own internal probe.
Finally, two numbers at the bottom of the phone list jump out: calls made on the morning of election day from the Guelph campaign to RackNine, just minutes after the robocalls went out. “And that was like, ‘Shit,’” says McGregor, who still can’t explain why he didn’t see the suspicious calls earlier.
Doing what Maher describes as a “fist-pumping slow-walk,” McGregor comes around the corner in the hot room and puts the list on Maher’s desk. “RackNine!” he says, pointing at the numbers. Maher got the source, McGregor got the document and now they have a story.
One morning soon after, McMaher are discussing the story in the lounge adjacent to the hot room—a regular meeting place. Previously a smoking lounge, it features dark wood, black leather furniture, cathedral windows and photos of press gallery members dating back to 1873.
The reporters need to contact RackNine’s owners: McGregor will call Rick McKnight and Maher will phone Matt Meier simultaneously so the men don’t have time to compare notes. McGregor prepares scripts so they will at least get the allegations on the record in case the owners hang up on them.
At their desks, McGregor and Maher peek above their cubicles: “Ready, one, two, three, go.” Maher comes over to McGregor and says he struck out, getting Meier’s voicemail. McGregor gets a live voice, but it’s not McKnight—it’s Meier. He covers the receiver, mouthing “Meier!” When McGregor alleges RackNine is being investigated, Meier plays it “clever and cute” and says he’ll call back. Eventually, he does: he had no idea RackNine’s servers were used to initiate the robocalls until he was contacted by Elections Canada in November 2011; Elections Canada has obtained a search warrant and executed an Information to Obtain (ITO)—the judge’s orders to hand over phone records; he’s co-operating with the investigation. Weeks later, McMaher learn McKnight doesn’t exist; he’s an online persona created by Meier.
The reporters now have evidence tying the Conservative campaign in Guelph to RackNine. McGregor files a draft to Potter, who, realizing what they have, says, “Holy fuck.” The story appears online on February 22, 2012, and runs the next day on A1 of the Citizen.
The following week, Ryan Cormier, court reporter for the Edmonton Journal, faxes a copy of the ITO to McMaher. The two publish a story on it, but McGregor knows from his work on the “in-and-out” scandal of 2006 (a scheme that saw the Conservatives spend a million dollars more on advertising than they should have during the election campaign) that they need more. The investigating officer—in this case, Mathews—has to swear an affidavit that will become part of the public record. “Go back,” they tell Cormier. “You gotta get the affidavit.”
Cormier finally scores it. On February 28, McGregor tells Potter they’ll have it by 2 p.m., 15 minutes before Question Period.
12:32 p.m.: McGregor emails Potter: “just worried about our useless fucking website taking 30 minutes to update.”
12:49 p.m.: Potter replies, saying the URL can be up within two minutes, but the server needs 30 minutes before it will show up in the index.
Huddled over the fax machine, McMaher can only wait. They want to break the story online during Question Period and tweet it so the Opposition can get a question in. The fax machine ticks along, and they read every page as it spits out: “Okay, I know that, I know that, we know that.” Finally, at 1:30, they get the affidavit and spot something unexpected: Pierre Poutine of Separatist Street, Joliette, Quebec. Elections Canada traced the number on the call display to a disposable cellphone with a Joliette area code that was used to set up the robocall account with RackNine.
“We have this moment where we kind of look at each other,” Maher remembers. “I think we embraced and kissed.” Several reporters in the press gallery are now chasing the story, and even though McMaher are ahead of the curve, they’re worried The Globe and Mail’s Daniel LeBlanc and Campbell Clarke might beat them to it. Maher’s desk is closer, so he grabs the affidavit and starts writing—500 words in 15 minutes. McGregor runs to his own desk and, at 1:46, unable to resist, tweets, “The made-up name ‘Pierre Poutine’ will be on all lips later today.”
1:49 p.m.: Cormier emails everyone involved: “Yeah, CBC has the Racknine ITO . . .”
2:14 p.m.: Maher emails Spencer and Potter: “hurry cbc has this”
2:17 p.m.: Potter emails the Citizen’s web guy, ccing McGregor, asking him to put the URL up. “HIGH PRIORITY” is in the subject line.
2:21 p.m.: McGregor replies to Potter’s previous email: “Whatever . . . just need the URL soon. Globe and CBC both have same docs!! We gotta move here!”
McGregor does not like to be scooped. “He loves to be first,” says Michael Bate, editor of Frank magazine, where McGregor worked for eight years. “It’s a game for him.” However, as the robocalls story demonstrates, in investigative journalism, collaboration can sometimes be more helpful than competition.
The co-production model—two or more news organizations working together on a story—brings journalists together to pool resources and produce more comprehensive investigations. This is especially useful in a time of budget cuts. The Toronto Star’s “enterprise team,” comprising reporters Robert Cribb, Jennifer Quinn and, until recently, Julian Sher, has experimented with co-pros on several investigative stories since late 2012. Now senior producer at The Fifth Estate, Sher says co-pros were always useful, but today “they’re a life-saving necessity for good investigative journalism”—not because they save money so much as because they maximize what news outlets are willing to spend. Handing over sources and research to colleagues isn’t easy; it requires trust. But once journalists build that trust, Sher says, “It is unshakeable.”
Maher heads into the Commons press gallery and sits in a green-leather-upholstered wooden chair, overlooking the MPs. Meanwhile, McGregor is in the lobby, ready to scrum interim Liberal leader Bob Rae. Maher repeatedly hits refresh on his phone, waiting for the link to show up from the Citizen’s website. At 2:27 the story lands and Maher tweets it. Opposition members start showing each other their phones.
2:39p.m.: A Liberal researcher emails McGregor: “Sending a Q into the House.”
An NDP and a Liberal MP step behind the mustard-yellow velvet curtain to prepare questions. Government House leader Peter Van Loan shows his phone to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who scrolls through the story without showing any emotion. Denis Coderre, then a Liberal MP, addresses the prime minister, informing him the Opposition has just learned of the direct link between RackNine and his party. “Can someone please explain to us why this electoral fraud took place? Could he set the record straight and tell us why the Conservative Party did such a thing?”
These are the moments investigative journalists live for. McGregor admits, “That was pure adrenaline for an hour.”
Predictably, McGregor and Maher faced mockery and ridicule from Conservative bloggers and right-wing news organizations such as Sun News Network. Ezra Levant implied that Maher had once been booted from a Conservative conference for being drunk. Byline host Brian Lilley used McGregor’s college job—DJing at a strip club—and the fact that his mother once worked for the NDP to try to discredit him. Lilley also suggested McMaher willfully omitted facts from their stories; Maher denies this, noting that some facts were leaked only to party-friendly news outlets.
At the time, Maher was bothered by the cheap shots, but now he’s more philosophical. “When we put politicians in the crosshairs and they are subject to negative public scrutiny, it is extremely unpleasant for them,” he says. “I didn’t understand how unpleasant until I was subjected to something similar.” But if anyone tried to put pressure on their editors, the reporters never knew about it. Potter says the same about Gerry Nott, then the Citizen’s publisher and editor-in-chief. “For all I know, he was getting calls from the PMO. I don’t know, but there was never any pressure on that front from Gerry,” says Potter, who adds that the paper kept the reporters in a bubble so they could just do their jobs. “We put that story on the front page almost every day for two months, and I know some readers and other people thought we were making a mountain out of a molehill.” Clancy remembers it the same way: “There were a lot of naysayers outside of government too. Not all the media bought into this story right away.” But the editors told the duo to keep reporting it. And they did.
In early 2013, proposed redrawn Saskatchewan riding boundaries would have favoured opposition parties. A robocall disguised as a poll told voters that eliminating the province’s hybrid ridings (part country, part city) would pit urban areas against rural ones and “offend Saskatchewan values.” While Maher was on holiday, McGregor pursued the story. The Conservatives denied responsibility, but when one of the phone numbers associated with the calls surfaced, McGregor called it and immediately recognized the voice of Matt Meier. After recording the outgoing message, he sent it to Maher, who then sent it to a forensic voice analysis expert in the U.S. The expert compared McGregor’s recording with the RackNine voicemail and concluded both were the same guy. McMaher emailed the Conservatives, who later sent a memo to the press gallery admitting to arranging the robocalls. McMaher’s subsequent story proved the Conservatives had again hired RackNine, to execute the Saskatchewan robocall. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate investigation and Harvey Cashore’s coverage of the Mulroney Airbus affair are part of a long history of investigative journalists uncovering political scandals. But reporters, no matter how persistent, can only know as much as they’re allowed to find out. In the beginning, Maher says, the government had all the information, but now, “A lot of marbles have crossed the table from them to us, and there’s every reason to believe that they will be sliding more marbles to us before it’s over.”
So far, Elections Canada has charged only one person in connection with the robocalls scandal: Michael Sona, a young Conservative Party staffer who worked on the Guelph campaign. Still, McGregor and Maher talk about it almost every day. “We don’t move the puck a whole lot,” says McGregor, but they’ve followed up on new developments. In November 2013, after a judge lifted a publication ban on the names of six witnesses who alleged Sona bragged about arranging the Guelph robocalls, McMaher wrote a story identifying the witnesses and outlining their accusations.
“It’s ultimately an unfinished piece of work,” says McGregor, highlighting one reason the story was so explosive. The reporters uncovered a lot, but not the most important part: the smoking gun. That hole drove the story forward, dominating political news for weeks. If McMaher had identified Pierre Poutine, it might have been a one-week sensation. “Ottawa is a very competitive media environment, and everybody wanted a piece of that story,” says Spencer. Even though they didn’t crack the case, their reporting earned much acclaim. In one weekend, they won the “triple crown” of awards: Press Freedom, Canadian Association of Journalists and National Newspaper. “I think it’s what could be called a grand slam,” says Clancy, adding that as a result of the story, Maher spends more time on investigative reporting. His once triweekly column now appears only weekly so he has time to pursue investigative pieces.
“Like a lot of things that turn out extremely well,” says Potter, “you don’t plan them and you don’t expect them.” McMaher believe the story mattered to the public. “What’s important in politics is what’s important to people, and with robocalls, you have voters who want to exercise their franchise being deceived,” says Maher. “You can write a lot of important stories, and if nobody gives a shit, then it will have no impact.”
Hours have passed, but Maher is still playing bad cop. “I’m worried that this is all a scam, and she’s really writing a feature on Bob Fife,” he says before he beat-boxes into McGregor’s iPhone, which, despite Maher’s many requests, is still recording. He leans forward, looking at me with ice-blue eyes, one brow raised. “Could it be . . . Bob Fife: a good reporter or not a good reporter? You could hang us with that.”
McGregor appears to remember something. “Can we tell her about the Manitoba thing?”
Maher pauses: “I don’t think we should. We’ve given her enough. We’ve given her too much.”
The recognition they’ve received—including that Michener—makes nostalgia inevitable. “I’ve never done any work in my career that has been as satisfying or as interesting,” Maher says. “Stories like robocalls come along maybe once or twice in a career,” McGregor adds. “I love paper chases, having a mystery to find out.”
It was the most fun they ever had on a story.
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the headline of the clipping above McGregor and Maher’s desks as “Citizen calls McGregor and Maher ‘McMaher’: reporters who broke explosive robocalls story.” “Robocalls” should instead be “roboballs.”
This piece was published in the Spring 2014 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.
by Lisa Coxon
Lisa Coxon was the Chief Copy Editor - Online for the Spring 2014 issue of Ryerson Review of Journalism.