The political assassination of Patrick Brown

Arguably, the former PC leader was never quite ready for prime time, but in tossing him overboard, a party badly out of touch with multi-ethnic Ontario has just thrown away the best hope they had of winning June’s provincial election

If you believe Patrick Brown, he did it to protect his family.

If you believe the Toronto Star, the former Progressive Conservative leader abandoned his political comeback on Monday, February 26, for less altruistic reasons – not the least of which is that a police investigation into alleged fraud in a Hamilton nomination battle may soon be hitting close to home in the form of criminal charges against former PC party officials close to Brown.

If you believe his supporters, the media killed Patrick Brown.

On that front, conspiracy theories abound, and they’re hard to ignore now that one of the accusers who forced his resignation on sexual misconduct allegations in late January has changed her story. Turns out she was not in high school and too young to drink when she says Brown tried to force her to perform oral sex on him at his home more than 10 years ago. 

An ex-girlfriend of Brown has also come forward to cast doubt on the allegations made by a second accuser, a former staffer of Brown’s who says he forced himself on her during a party at his house in 2013. Brown filed a notice of intent to sue CTV for libel last week. The network is standing by its story.

While the revelations do not change substantively the allegations against Brown, it’s also fair to say that media accounts, at least initially, may have been overcooked. Brown’s first accuser may have been barely old enough to drink, but to keep referring to her as “underage” in media accounts in the days that followed his ouster put a different blush on the story. 

Brown has called the charges against him “absolute lies.” He still doesn’t get what the allegations, even if somewhat embellished, about booze and women too young for a person of his standing might say to the public about his character.

But it’s also true that those in his caucus uneasy about the more moderate – and inclusive – direction he was taking the PCs were happy to turn the allegations into an opportunity to dump him. 

The party, reduced to a mostly white, mostly male and mostly rural rump of 28 MPPs after the Mike Harris daze – and badly out of touch with an increasingly multi-ethnic Ontario – has a recent history of spitting out leaders who’ve tried to steer a course to the political centre. It happened to Tim Hudak. It happened to John Tory. And now Brown. 

The seeds of Brown’s demise may have been planted as far back as 2015, shortly after he took over as leader and private investigators started showing up in Barrie asking questions about his financial interest in a local hangout called Hooligans, and Facebook posts featured Brown and various women hanging out at the club. 

Certainly, it hasn’t gone unnoticed how quickly Caroline Mulroney hit the ground running to launch her leadership bid – or, for that matter, Christine Elliott, who cut all ties to the party after her loss to Brown and then came out of nowhere to stake her claim to the leadership. She’s tacking a distinctly more right-wing course this time around, promising to axe Brown’s carbon tax and free votes in the legislature on issues of conscience to lure social conservatives to her side. It’s been a breathtaking reversal made more contradictory by the fact one of Elliott’s key supporters, the guy most eager to pull the trigger on Brown when the misconduct charges first surfaced, Ottawa-area MPP Randy Hillier, is facing a third-party review over harassment allegations. 

Arguably, the socially awkward Brown was never quite ready for prime time. But in tossing him overboard, the PCs may have just thrown away the best hope they had of winning June’s provincial election.

From rehabilitation to resignation 

It’s been one revelation after another since Brown embarked on his political comeback after climbing down a rabbit hole for a couple of weeks. Friends say he lay curled up on a couch for days after . 

But Brown’s public penance – and his political rehabilitation and possible return as leader – seemed well underway after the party’s nominating committee agreed to let him run for his old job. 

An army of lawyer friends who had rallied to his side had been working the phones chatting up anyone who would listen about organizers who had decamped to Mulroney now returning to the fold. 

Brown’s team had crunched the numbers and determined there was a path to victory. They say some 14,000 PC members registered to vote in the leadership shortly after Brown got party clearance to run. 

The only fly in the ointment is that Brown would have to win on the first ballot. A tall order. But Brown won with 64 per cent of the vote against Elliott last time. And many of those members are still loyal to him. Some 35 PC candidates had come forward to publicly declare their support.

But something abruptly went sideways on the way to the coronation. 

It was last Saturday night in a conference call with about 50 members of his campaign team that Brown, says long-time party insider John Mykytyshyn, started to express doubts about continuing in the race.

“Everyone on the phone was like, ‘What the hell?’” says Mykytyshyn.

All of a sudden it wasn’t about winning anymore, according to Mykytyshyn. Brown was asked to sleep on it, but his mind was made up. He showed up at his campaign office around 11 pm that night with his two sisters in tow to deliver the news to staff. It was an emotional scene.

It’s not entirely clear what finally broke Brown. Only he knows for sure.

When news of his withdrawing started circulating early Monday, speculation was that more shit was about to hit the fan on the eve, no less, of the last of two leadership debates scheduled for Ottawa on Wednesday, February 28. 

One Brown confidant suggested as much. “Vile things are transpiring behind the scenes that would shock the public conscience. Now with their friends in the media, and political operatives with an interest in concealing their roles in the coup are throwing mud. Wasn’t this about two young women just four weeks ago? Now we see the reality. That reality is ugly.” 

This morning, the Globe published details of internal emails suggesting that a decision not to revoke the controversial nomination of Brown’s former communications director Karma Macgregor in Ottawa-Napean, had to do with not angering her daughter, Tamara Macgregor, a former “jilted” ex-girlfriend of Brown.  

The four-page statement setting out Brown’s reasons for withdrawing from the leadership cites the need to focus on clearing his name and the toll the accusations against him have taken on his family, friends and his romantic partner, “who never signed up to be in the public eye.” 

It all seemed slightly contrived. Did he finally realize there was no winning? Brown acknowledged in his statement that he didn’t have the energy to take on Wynne with sexual misconduct allegations still hanging over his head.

What is clearer is that the attacks on Brown were not about to stop. 

Earlier that Saturday, Maclean’s had published a report based on an audio recording it obtained of the first of two conference calls held by the PC caucus on the night news of the allegations against Brown broke.

Stunning stuff, made all the more sensational by the unprecedented breach of caucus confidentiality the release of the audio represents. Those out to get Brown seemed intent on finishing the job by any means necessary and have access to the information to do it.

The audio itself reveals just how fragmented the caucus has become under Brown.

For a time, his colleagues don’t even know he’s listening in on their conversation. When that’s pointed out to them by Brown’s deputy chief of staff for communications, Rebecca Thompson, it does little to change the tenor of the discussion, most of which is focused on how social media was blowing up and how Brown had no choice but to resign immediately, despite his protestations of innocence.

The trigger man

Hillier is the most outspoken on that front. He threatens Brown at one point to “exit on his own terms tonight,” or the caucus would do it for him. 

A unsuccessful candidate for the party leadership in 2009, Hillier, who hails from the party’s landowner’s rights faction, has been a loose cannon ever since he entered politics, which is why he’s found himself relegated to the backbenches. The party thought about revoking his nomination when he first ran in 2006.

He was part of the party revolt that upended Hudak and, while taking a backseat during the last leadership, has been front and centre in l’affaire Brown, coming out this time for Elliott.

It was Hillier who filed a formal complaint with the province’s integrity commissioner on February 20, alleging “financial irregularities” and calling into question “the ethics and behaviour” of Brown as it relates to his purchase of a $2.3 million waterfront property on Lake Simcoe, as well as gifts and trips to India and elsewhere allegedly paid for by big money donors to the party. Hillier’s complaint includes allegations that Brown received cash from a prospective candidate in return for securing a nomination. 

Hillier has also been in the news over harassment allegations made by Ottawa PC candidate Goldie Ghamari over an incident outside the party’s convention in Ottawa in 2016. 

Ghamari tweeted on January 28 that Hillier “harassed me, intimidated me, & used his body to bully and scare me out of getting involved in politics.” Ghamari says Hillier, who has since apologized but denied the allegations, had been drinking. The party has hired an investigator to look into the accusations.

Ghamari happens to be part of the new crop of candidates recruited by Brown to run for the party whose nomination has also sparked internal backlash.

That controversy spilled into public view last summer when an email to party members from PC MPP Lisa MacLeod was leaked to the Ottawa Citizen. MacLeod’s email refers to Ghamari’s nomination as a disaster, “not a suitable representative for my constituents.” She reported that her campaign sign crew quit over Ghamari’s nomination.

MacLeod’s email also makes reference to a video made by right-wing online outfit The Rebel about Ghamari’s alleged anti-Christian and pro-Islamist views. 

MacLeod, another former leadership candidate, was one of Hudak’s major operatives in Eastern Ontario, but was passed over for the job when Brown took over.

Her role in Brown’s demise has also been the subject of intense speculation – in particular, a somewhat cryptic tweet she sent out hours before news of the sexual misconduct allegations broke. The tweet was deleted and then reposted when the allegations against Brown became public.  

Lisa MacLeod tweet leake.JPG

Tweet sent by Lisa MacLeod hours before allegations of sexual misconduct against former PC leader Patrick Brown went public.

The ghost inside the hate machine

But it’s Brown’s former chief of staff, Alykhan Velshi, who has emerged as a central figure in what Brown supporters refer to as the “hate machine” working behind the scenes to undermine Brown.

The former Stephen Harper aide brought on in February 2017 after Nicolas Pappalardo was forced to leave the position for family reasons, was part of the group of Brown advisers that resigned en masse shortly after Brown’s press conference to deny the allegations, reportedly because Brown wouldn’t take their advice to quit. Two of them, Dan Robertson and Andrew Boddington, joined Mulroney’s leadership bid. 

Velshi reportedly showed up for work at his old desk at Queen’s Park the next morning. He was quickly rehired to his old position by interim leader Vic Fedeli. 

Velshi never enjoyed the complete confidence of Brown. Indeed, he was an odd choice for a party Brown was clearly trying to steer toward the political middle.

He got his start as a foreign policy analyst with the Washington-based right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute before gigs as an aide to citizen and immigration minister Jason Kenney, whose positions on Islam need no introduction, and a business affiliation with Ezra Levant, The Rebel commander and oil sands apologist. It was Velshi who launched the pro-tar-sands website, inspired by Levant’s 2010 book, Ethical Oil: The Case For Canada’s Oil Sands. Clearly he and Brown never saw eye to eye on the issue of a carbon tax, a key plank in Brown’s election platform. 

Velshi is an expert in crisis management, “well-versed in the dark arts of spin and misdirection,” according to one report. But there have been questions raised about his handling of the situation in the hours before the CTV story broke. 

Velshi reportedly helped Brown draft the statement denying the sexual misconduct allegations and was supposed to act as his wingman – wait for Brown outside the press conference called to deny the allegations so Brown wouldn’t have to walk the gauntlet of reporters alone to his waiting vehicle. But Velshi never showed. He tweeted out his resignation along with Boddington and Robertson a short time later. The Star reported yesterday that he will be returning to the private sector once a new leader is chosen.

The PCs’ Tea Party takeover

Brown was out of it before he was really in it, and his future seems murky. He’s running in his old riding, presumably as an independent now that he was been booted from caucus, and it’s unclear if he will be let back in should he take the seat.

But his departure from the PC leadership leaves the race to replace him – and the future of the party – more up in the air than ever. Make no mistake, the barbarians are at the gates. 

It’s every candidate for themselves now, no alliances needed – like the much-talked about one between Doug Ford and Christine Elliott – to head off Brown at the pass. Indeed, all bets are off. Ford is acting like he can win this thing. And why not? The Tea Party elements in the party Brown tried to tame are now firmly in control. 

The race would seem like Elliott’s to lose, but while pushing the narrative that it’s time to move forward and unite the party after all the Brown drama, Elliott’s hard turn to the right has made her run look opportunistic. As Ford asked during Wednesday’s leadership debate, which Christine Elliott will we get should she win the leadership? 

The biggest fixers in the party have put their money on Mulroney, but it’s looking like that was a big mistake. The daughter of the former PM is certainly polished enough but has been left to conducting most of her campaign on Twitter and the odd press conference, which suggests her strength on the ground is spotty at best. Truth is, outside the name recognition, she’s an unknown among rank and file. 

From the peanut gallery, meanwhile, Tanya Granic Allen, who’s running on repealing the sex ed curriculum, has so far been notable for being the only candidate to utter the words “anal sex” during debates, boasting about her admiration for alt-right eminence grise Jordan Peterson and receiving the endorsement of white racialist Paul Fromm, which she took her sweet time renouncing.

That should tell you all you need to know about where this party is headed. | @enzodimatteo

Updated July 2, 2018, 8:30 pm: An earlier version of this story misstated Ezra Levant’s relationship to the oil sands industry. 

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