OTTAWA—What was the Conservative party to do?
In mid-June, a lawyer acting on behalf of a Patrick Brown operative approached them with allegations that Brown’s leadership campaign was in violation of election law.
At first, the information was tightly held, multiple party insiders told the Star on Wednesday.
It wasn’t the first allegation made against Brown’s campaign, or the first to surface against any candidate in what’s been a bitterly waged battle for leadership of the party since the contest began in February.
But after internal debate that took into account the source of the accusation, the decision was made to proceed with an investigation into the claim — which by late Wednesday the party still wouldn’t formally disclose and which Brown disputes.
“We had a series of s—ty options,” said one party insider, who, like others interviewed for this story, was granted anonymity to freely discuss internal party deliberations. “What if we didn’t act and it came to light?”
What would unspool over the next two weeks ended with Brown’s disqualification as a candidate late Tuesday night, dropping a bombshell into the leadership race as it enters its final weeks.
Brown was campaigning in New Brunswick when the news reached him that he’d been turfed.
In an interview, he told the Star he was blindsided by a move that he suggested was a setup to hand his rival Pierre Poilievre the crown.
Brown — who retained prominent lawyer Marie Henein to appeal his disqualification — said the matter related to an “anonymous allegation made against our campaign that an individual working for a corporation was being paid to help us.”
But he said the party wouldn’t provide any further detail, leaving his team chasing what he called a “phantom allegation.”
Henein, who successfully defended former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant and ex-CBC host Jian Ghomeshi in their high-profile cases, told the Tories, “To be clear, Mr. Brown has engaged in absolutely no misconduct.”
“This Kafkaesque process led to a politically motivated and preordained result and is not consistent with the values that should be upheld by this party,” wrote the famed lawyer in a salvo to Tory brass.
Three provincial and federal Conservative sources told the Star the allegation that led to Brown’s disqualification didn’t come from another campaign, but from Brown’s own.
Party sources said the allegations were clearly laid out in a series of face-to-face meetings with Brown’s inner circle, beginning last week.
Formal letters and emails requesting and providing information were exchanged, but neither side was satisfied.
Brown’s story kept changing, one party source told the Star. Another said he consistently evaded the questions.
His team insisted it was the questions that kept changing, as did the information behind them.
Both sides told the Star they were at an impasse.
But as of late Wednesday, neither would release the letters, nor any other documents to back up their claims.
In the statement announcing Brown’s disqualification, the leadership election organizing committee, known as LEOC, would say only that the information Brown’s team gave them just wasn’t enough.
That information, and the allegations in question, is being referred to Elections Canada and for now the party won’t release details, said LEOC chair Ian Brodie.
“While we felt it important to provide a transparent response to party members about this matter, because this issue is now subject to further investigation, we will not be speaking further on the subject,” he wrote.
Pressure was on both sides to reach a resolution because of a crucial milestone they were approaching: the finalization of the membership list.
A record-high number of memberships were sold for the race, pushing the party’s member list to 675,000. Verifying all those names and getting them to the candidates was a top priority. Campaigns were chomping at the bit to begin the all-important persuasion phase of the race.
The party wanted to get the campaigns the list by June 30, so they could have time to challenge any names they felt shouldn’t be on there.
Five campaigns got the list, but Brown’s didn’t as his team and the party went back and forth several times over the Canada Day weekend.
Two sources told the Star that discussions included Brown withdrawing from the race himself, instead of being kicked out.
He’d already mused publicly about dropping out.
“If it looks like Pierre is going to win, I would prefer to continue to serve municipally, rather than being a part of what will be an electoral train wreck of the Conservative party,” Brown told CBC News on June 29 as negotiations were furiously underway behind the scenes over the allegations he was facing.
What his team was waiting for was the membership list — they were going to study it to see if Brown had a path to victory at all, and whether he ought to drop out instead and enter the race for re-election as Brampton mayor.
Brown’s campaign has suggested the list would prove he had a path to victory, a claim they repeated in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
They cited the points system the party uses and their belief Poilievre’s support was too geographically concentrated in Western Canada to hand him a win.
Unless the party wanted to give him one, Brown said in an interview.
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“I think this is Pierre Poilievre’s campaign being a bully — they bullied members of LEOC. All the Pierre people were there (at the Tuesday meeting). They clearly saw our campaign as a threat.”
Insiders connected to Poilievre’s team bristled at the allegation, noting among other things that every time they’ve pressured LEOC for a decision in their favour, they’ve been rebuffed, including when they requested the race be wrapped up by midsummer to avoid a drawn-out affair.
The Tuesday meeting that resulted in Brown’s disqualification was supposed to be held Monday, sources told the Star.
But a decision was made to wait another day given what they believed was the seriousness of the allegation and the desire to give the Brown campaign time to respond.
Senior party officials were given a heads-up late Tuesday night that a “decision of significance” was going to be taken at the meeting, and told to stand by for news.
Brown said the fact that 11 members of the organizing committee voted against him, with six in support, suggests a party divided between competing visions.
“I know Pierre Poilievre is celebrating today … but the only person who should be celebrating is (Liberal Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau … because Justin Trudeau is going to have the easiest re-election campaign he ever had (if Poilievre is Tory leader),” he said.
“I don’t want to see the party become a pale imitation of the Republican party in the U.S. Pierre wants to replicate the party of (Texas senator) Ted Cruz and (ex-president) Donald Trump. It’s just going to be a train wreck.”
Sources in multiple other leadership campaign teams told the Star that, in fact, there was little cause for jubilation.
Scott Aitchison, Roman Baber and Leslyn Lewis had no comment on the affair, though the Lewis campaign confirmed she communicated with Brown on Wednesday to share “words of encouragement.”
A similar exchange took place between Brown and candidate Jean Charest — they have a personal relationship dating back years.
In a statement, Charest called the whole affair “deeply troubling.”
“Party members deserve the truth. We need to understand what the allegations are, how Patrick Brown’s campaign responded and why LEOC took such drastic action,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
“Transparency is paramount.”
Poilievre’s team privately professed some measure of disappointment — they had hoped to crush Brown in the vote.
Publicly, they also discounted any allegations they were behind the effort to remove him.
The two men have been at each other’s throats since the early days of the race, and Poilievre did not let up on Wednesday, repeating his talking points about Brown’s political past.
Among the lines of attack: that in 2018 the Ontario integrity commissioner found Brown in breach of ethics rules for failing to disclose a loan he received from a potential Progressive Conservative candidate when Brown was the leader of that provincial party.
Brown stepped down from that job in January 2018 amidst allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies.
“For years, Patrick’s conduct has demonstrated that he is the kind of person that will say and do anything to win,” Poilievre’s campaign said in a statement.
“(Tuesday’s news) was just the latest chapter in a career defined by numerous scandals, inquiries, and even criminal investigations related to political activities at all three levels of government.”
Party insiders told the Star that Brown’s own campaign was the source of the allegation that led to his removal from the race.
But Poilievre’s camp has been behind previous complaints filed about Brown, both that his campaign team was paying for people’s memberships — a violation of the rules — and that he had Brampton city staff working on his campaign while being paid by city hall.
Brown disputed both.
The issue around city resources being used to pay for his campaign was supposed to be discussed at a Brampton city council meeting Wednesday morning that was abruptly cancelled after word of Brown’s disqualification circulated.
The city said that was linked to an ongoing court case related to the appointment of a councillor.
But five city councillors jumped into the federal fray Wednesday, running through their own list of issues with Brown and saying his repeated refusals to show up at city hall are an affront to democracy.
“The CPC took a bold step after conducting its own investigations of Patrick Brown,” they wrote.
“He didn’t get away with these tactics in his Conservative leadership bid and he shouldn’t get away with them in Brampton either.”
The political twist, meanwhile, comes as hundreds of thousands of ballots are already in the mail to party members and Brown’s name is on them.
The party is now trying to figure out the best way to communicate to members that should they still wish to vote for him, it won’t count.
The next leader is expected to be announced on Sept. 10.
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
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