Politics

19-year-old former intern at centre of alleged O'Toole breach denies he hacked account

The 19-year-old former intern at the centre of a political tempest that is now the subject of police investigations says he never "hacked" into Conservative leadership candidate Erin O'Toole's video conferencing account.

Fired intern says in statement he sent videos to MacKay organizer after O'Toole staffer gave him login info

Conservative leadership candidates Erin O'Toole, left, and Peter MacKay have been embroiled in a dispute over what O'Toole's camp says was the hacking of its video conference calls and theft of strategic data. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

The 19-year-old former intern at the centre of a political tempest that is now the subject of police investigations says he never "hacked" into Conservative leadership candidate Erin O'Toole's video conferencing account. The young man, who worked in a Calgary MP's office, says a member of O'Toole's team simply gave him the password.

"He neither mentioned that this information was confidential nor anything of that nature, nor that I was only allowed to download a specific video," the former intern said in a statement provided to CBC News, which was first reported by The Toronto Star.

He added he never asked for the login information.

The former intern shared the statement with CBC News on condition he not be named.

His version of events provides more information about a bizarre twist in the Conservative leadership race. While internal party politics can often be divisive, it's rare that police are asked to get involved.

The events in question happened in recent weeks, while the young man was working as an intern for Calgary Centre MP Greg McLean, who supports O'Toole's leadership bid. He said in his statement he had been clear to his employer all along that he was personally a MacKay supporter. 

The now former intern — he was fired in the wake of the data theft allegations — said when he was given the O'Toole account username and password, he decided to try to hand them over to Jamie Lall, a regional organizer on MacKay's team. He said his offer was ultimately declined. 

O'Toole's campaign has said the account included confidential O'Toole campaign data and strategy from Zoom video conference calls with Conservative Party members and campaign strategy video conferences.

Asked by CBC News if he believes what he did constitutes hacking, the former intern said "absolutely not."

CBC News has agreed not to name the 19-year-old because he fears the O'Toole campaign's claims about his behaviour, which he disputes, will damage his reputation for years to come. 

McLean, his former employer, rejected the explanation Wednesday evening, saying it is inconsistent with what the former intern previously said.

"I know not to trust this. The police investigation will determine the truth,' McLean tweeted after the Star story appeared.

That message was echoed by the man the intern says gave him the password. 

Contacted by CBC News Wednesday, Jordan Katz, a regional organizer with the O'Toole campaign, said the intern "misrepresented himself" when they spoke.

 Katz declined to say anything further, noting police would likely be calling him as part of their investigation.

O'Toole campaign alerted police

The O'Toole campaign first made the allegations public in a statement late Friday night, saying its systems had been "hacked" and calling for a police investigation. The statement followed reports earlier in the week by Radio-Canada and CBC News about leaked video calls between O'Toole and social conservatives in Quebec that showed him asking for their second-choice votes.

O'Toole's team maintains it has been the victim of a crime — that downloading dozens of private video calls is the digital equivalent of someone breaking into a campaign office and stealing strategic documents.

Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay wait for the start of the French Leadership Debate in Toronto on June 17. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

O'Toole campaign officials say their own investigation shows that some 145 archived Zoom video calls were accessed from both Calgary and Toronto.

MacKay's team has pushed back, saying O'Toole's campaign is complaining in order to draw attention away from his recent performance in the party's two official leadership debates. 

"They have engaged in a PR and not a legal exercise and it looks like they've wasted quite a few people's time and resources, not least of which are three police forces," MacKay's spokesperson, Chisholm Pothier, said in an email.

"We have no further comments on the dysfunction and chaos of the O'Toole campaign," he said.

Both the RCMP and the Toronto Police service have confirmed they are looking into the allegations. The Ontario Provincial Police were also contacted by the O'Toole campaign.

'I was never coached'

O'Toole's team has aimed much of the blame at Lall, the Mackay organizer. Lall has said in a tweet that he rejects the  allegations.

In a letter to the RCMP, OPP and the Toronto Police Service, obtained by CBC News and first reported on by the National Post, the O'Toole campaign alleges that Lall persuaded someone — whose name is redacted in the letter — to download private video calls and share them with the MacKay campaign.

The letter alleges Lall met with that person and was given the login credentials and passwords.

In his statement, the former intern said any suggestion he was manipulated into sharing the password is false. 

"I was never coached, or pushed, by Jamie Lall to get any sort of information, or anyone from the Peter MacKay campaign for that matter."

"I have only ever met Jamie Lall once, and did the reaching out to him and was the first to make contact." 

The young man says he did download some videos from the O'Toole Zoom account and shared them with Lall, but doesn't know if they were ever accessed.

"When I followed up with Jamie Lall a few days later he said that the campaign has declined to use the information."

Things came to a head for the intern when he was brought into a call on June 18 with McLean and O'Toole organizers. He said he spoke during the meeting and also exchanged emails with them later.

But, he said in his statement, he never provided the O'Toole campaign with any official statement or signed document.

He was dismissed from his job the next day.

About the Author

Catherine Cullen

Parliamentary Bureau

Catherine Cullen is a senior reporter covering politics and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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