The last hours of Patrick Brown's leadership - Macleans.ca

The last hours of Patrick Brown’s leadership

From the CTV email that started it all to the chaotic gathering in his condo, here’s how Brown’s final hours as the Ontario PC leader played out

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Patrick Brown leaves Queen’s Park after a press conference in Toronto on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim)

At 4:24 PM on Jan. 24, Glen McGregor, politics correspondent for CTV National News, emailed the assistant of Alykhan Velshi, chief of staff to Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown.

McGregor, a hard-nosed veteran of the parliamentary press gallery, had often crossed paths with Velshi when Velshi was working for Stephen Harper.

In Ottawa fashion, the two men had sometimes exchanged friendly banter when they ran into one another in downtown Ottawa bars, but for years McGregor dug up stories for the Ottawa Citizen that posed difficulties for the Harper government, and Velshi ran interference for the boss, often pushing confrontational media lines.

Their paths had not crossed since 2014, when Velshi left Harper’s office. Now they were connected again in new roles. A year earlier, Velshi had left global business consultants McKinsey & Company to act as Brown’s chief of staff. McGregor had left the Citizen and was now on CTV.

That afternoon, Velshi’s young assistant, Sarah, let him know that McGregor had contacted him. Velshi told her he would call him back. McGregor couldn’t wait. Half an hour later, he sent her the email.

“URGENT: For Alykhan Velshi”

Velshi’s assistant scanned it, forwarded it to Velshi and went to find him. He needed to look at it immediately.

The email (whose veracity was confirmed by Maclean’s) was shocking but not entirely unexpected.

Several days earlier, Brown had told his team that McGregor had made some calls asking about Brown’s relations with young women.

The fact that McGregor was looking into Brown’s past was concerning. Brown’s team knew that private eyes and reporters had poked around in Barrie, looking into rumours about Brown’s romantic life. But McGregor, an investigative reporter with a long track record of coming up with big stories, now working for the highest rated news channel in Canada, was a different matter.

The text of the email confirmed that McGregor’s inquiry was indeed different.

“Hi Alykhan,” McGregor wrote. “This is a media inquiry to Patrick Brown. Because it is highly sensitive, I am sending it directly to you to give to him rather than to his public-facing email address. Please call me to discuss soonest.”

That was followed by a letter addressed to “Mr. Brown.”

It got right to the point.

“We are looking into allegations against you of sexual misconduct, made by two women. We would like to arrange an on-camera interview with you to address these allegations in more detail.”

What followed was shocking: a 900-word account, in point form, detailing the allegations.

The email started by describing, in 150 words, an incident with a young woman, giving only her first name and no date and beginning with an allegation that Brown had plied her with liquor while she was in high school. (It was later revealed that the young woman was older than reported at the time of the incident. Brown has consistently denied the allegations and has filed a notice of libel with CTV. The two women insist their stories are true. The allegations have not been tested in court. Brown did not reply to repeated requests for comment on this story.)

The email went into much greater detail, 624 words, about the allegations of a second young woman, a former Brown staffer. It included her full name, a description of how they met, including details of a Facebook message he sent to her. (Again, Brown has repeatedly denied the claims as lies, criticizing CTV’s reporting as a hit job and challenged the women to take their complaint to the police if true.)

The email, with its detailed accounting of allegations of sexual misconduct, was cataclysmically bad news for Brown, who until that moment had looked like he had an excellent chance to become the next premier of Ontario.

After defeating Christine Elliott for the leadership of the party in 2015 by out-hustling her on the ground, he had put together a centrist platform, raised $16 million, fought off social conservatives and racists, recruited minority candidates. He criss-crossed the province, doing grass roots outreach. Long hours of media training were paying off and his communication skills were improving. Polls showed him with a double-digit lead over Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals. He looked like a winner. He had even managed to recruit Caroline Mulroney, a star candidate. He seemed poised to become premier.

Interviews with more than a dozen people with direct knowledge of the events of that day show that the email from McGregor changed everything, tearing apart the team that had that morning seemed ready to govern Canada’s largest province.

READ MORE: The doggedness of Patrick Brown

Velshi, who had access to Brown’s Facebook account, checked the exchange described in the email. It was as reported.

Velshi called in press secretary Nick Bergamini and some junior aides and set them to work lining up lawyers and drafting a statement.

He arranged for Brown’s driver to go get the leader at the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club, the posh Rosedale club where Brown, as competitive a tennis player as he was a politician, was playing a ladder match against a young lawyer.

Velshi instructed the driver to pick up Brown, and take him to his condo, near Queens Park, but not to tell him why.

“I was playing tennis at the time and my assistant came onto the tennis court and said urgent,” Brown later told Global news. “The team needs to see you.”

Velshi forwarded the email to key members of Brown’s team: campaign chair Walied Soliman, a high-powered lawyer and close friend of Brown, campaign manager Andrew Boddington, a former organizer for Tim Hudak and Kevin O’Leary, and deputy campaign manager Dan Robertson, a former Harper staffer who had helped put together Brown’s platform.

After sending them the email, Velshi set up a conference call.

Soliman, who had known Brown since their days in the Progressive Conservative Youth Federation, was headed for the airport when he got the call. The Canadian chair of Norton Rose Fullbright, a global law firm, Soliman was bound for Billy Bishop Airport to fly to New York on business. At first, he thought that Brown’s team could handle this without his help. Before long, Velshi convinced him that the story was serious enough that he had to cancel the trip.

Soliman headed for the condo, to brief Brown. Everyone else on the call headed for Velshi’s office.

At 4:58 p.m., Velshi emailed McGregor to find out CTV’s plans for the story:

“Glen, I received your note from Sarah. I’m obviously completely unfamiliar with any of this. When is CTV planning to run the story? I haven’t managed to reach Mr Brown yet. Alykhan”

McGregor replied two minutes later: “We are planning to run a story tonight, beginning with our 10 p.m. National News broadcast.”

The news that CTV was planning to go that night cranked up the already brutal pressure on the Brown team. It seemed unfair to all of them that CTV would give them just hours to respond, something Brown later complained about. But, according to interviews with eight people who were present at the condo that night, at no point did anyone suggest engaging with CTV, offering to give them an interview or asking for more time.

Perhaps that was because many of them reached the same conclusion independently upon reading the email: Brown would have to quit.

“I read that and I remember trembling, shaking,” said one staffer. “I very quickly formed the view that he couldn’t survive this.”

It seemed clear that the media reaction to the story would quickly push Progressive Conservatives to reject his leadership.

“Caucus is never ever going to be behind this,” said another staffer. “I can’t imagine candidates are. They would never be behind him as leader on this.”

When they thought about the days ahead, they didn’t like what was coming.

“How do you rebut harassment allegation?” said another staffer. “You hire PIs. You hire lawyers to sue CTV. You Facebook stalk a bunch of people. You do a lot of things that the media would not forgive you for and force everyone in the party to defend if you were the leader of a party.”

READ MORE: Patrick Brown’s weakness cost him his job—and his shot to retake it

When Robertson and Boddington arrived at the Queens Park office, it was a beehive of activity, with junior staffers engaged in crisis management tasks.

Robertson took Velshi and Boddington aside and told them he didn’t think that Brown could survive this. The other men grimly agreed.

The email was tough personal news for all of them, who had been working hard with the goal of making Brown premier. That was not going to happen. They had to figure out how to break it to the leader.

They decided they had to get to Brown’s condo nearby on St. Mary Street.

By the time they arrived, Soliman had briefed Brown, who was protesting his innocence.

When Brown spoke with staff about the email, he was rattled by the allegations. He could not even remember who the first woman was. Two people who were there say his explanations to them were off-putting and not persuasive.

Soliman was more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt than other members of the team. Unlike the staffers, who got to know Brown on the job, Soliman and Brown had been friends for 25 years. And Soliman had vetted him more thoroughly, looking at, for instance, a report produced by private investigators who dug into Brown’s past during the 2015 leadership race, which included surveillance photos of Brown.

Multiple sources say investigators who dug into Brown did so because they wanted to help rival Christine Elliott. Elliott’s campaign denies any knowledge of that, although they are aware of rumours that someone wishing to help the campaign hired private investigators and aware of other media organizations looking into the allegations.

When Velshi, Boddington and Robertson got to the condo, at about 6 p.m., they sat down with him alone at the kitchen table and Robertson told him they thought he needed to quit. You can’t survive the week because caucus won’t support you, he told the leader. Velshi and Boddington agreed.

But Brown was firm. The stories were false. He was not going to quit. So, he asked them, if I am going to stay on, how can I fight for my job?

In a later interview on Global TV, Brown said that his senior staff “recommended” that he have a press conference to tell the truth and then blind-sided him by resigning. Multiple sources say, though, that they strongly recommended he resign and only advised that he hold a news conference after he refused to step down.

Dazed, and certain that he was making a mistake, they nonetheless started to organize a news conference, working on a draft of the statement Brown would give.

Then Velshi, Robertson and Boddington stepped out into the hallway to meet privately. Robertson told the other two men that if Brown wouldn’t resign, they would have to. They believed Brown was pursuing a self-destructive course and didn’t want to be part of it.

While this was going on, the condo had been filling up with people close to Brown. An assistant had ordered pizza.

Brown’s sisters had arrived, as had Brown’s old friend Mike Richmond, who was the party’s lawyer, former Blue Jays executive Rob Godfrey, and Mikaela Patterson, who Brown was dating at the time of the alleged assault on the second woman. She later did an interview in which she cast doubt on one of the two allegations against Brown.

Brown’s friends and family were in the bedroom, while the staff worked in the rest of the condo.

Rebecca Thompson, deputy chief of staff for communications, a former Ottawa political staffer and Sun News reporter, and former Harper staffer Dimitri Soudas, who had volunteered to help run the war room during the election campaign, agreed to help Brown prepare for the news conference.

At about 8 p.m., Goldy Hyder, Canadian CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, one of the most important government relations and communications firms in Canada, showed up.

Hyder, former chief of staff to Joe Clark, is a veteran debate coach. He had been scheduled to meet Brown that evening to help prepare him for an upcoming debate, something he had agreed to do in part because of his friendship with Soliman, in part because he was impressed by the way Brown had stood up to anti-Muslim elements in the party.

That day, someone from the leader’s office messaged him to tell him to come to the condo, not the office.

When he got there, and saw all the people, it was obvious that something was up.

Robertson and Velshi gave him a two-page printout of the email from McGregor and told him that if he wanted to walk away, nobody would blame him.

Hyder read part of the first page and stopped. It doesn’t really matter what the rest of this says, he said. It’s over.

They asked him to read the whole thing. He finished it and told them it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Brown’s leadership is over.

OK, they said. Will you tell Brown?

Hyder agreed. He went into the room where Brown was preparing for the news conference.

It’s over, Hyder said. You have to quit. Brown said he couldn’t quit over untrue stories. Hyder said it doesn’t matter what’s true. You have to quit. Brown said no.

Having failed to convince him to quit, the conversation turned to the news conference Brown was planning.

READ MORE: The phone call that ended Patrick Brown’s leadership

Thompson, Soudas and Hyder talked to Brown about what was to come. Brown’s sisters wanted to flank him to show their support for their brother. Others didn’t think that was a good idea, for the sake of the sisters. Someone proposed having Patterson and Richmond stand with him. Others said that would not look great.

“It was very clear it was going to be a terrible news conference,” said one staffer present.

It would look bad if Brown didn’t answer questions, so they tried a practice question-and-answer session, with Hyder and Thompson posing as journalists, throwing questions at the leader. It quickly became clear that he would not be able to handle that.

At 8:14 pm, Brown’s lawyer, Jonathan Lisus, sent an email to McGregor, who was anxiously waiting in CTV’s Ottawa bureau, preparing to air his explosive story.

“Mr. Brown categorically denies these false and defamatory allegations,” the email said.

McGregor, who had heard nothing from Velshi since the email earlier that day, had been waiting for a statement from the Brown camp. This flat denial was the last piece that CTV needed to put the story on the air at 10 pm.

If Brown had offered an interview the next day, or provided detailed exculpatory information, CTV would have been in a different position, with more legal and journalistic questions to wrestle with before they could go to air.

CTV had been working on the story for months. McGregor, reporter Rachel Aiello and anchor Lisa LaFlamme had all had a hand in it, along with lawyers and producers. They waited for Brown’s news conference, news of which was leaking, and prepared to air their story.

In the condo, meanwhile, Brown’s key aides had concluded that they need to resign. Velshi, Boddington and Robertson took Soliman aside and told them they were going to quit that night. Soliman tried to convince them to stay on, at least wait until the next day, but they insisted that they were done. They all agreed that it was wisest not to tell Brown, who was emotionally strained and facing a disastrous news conference.

At 9:45 p.m., Brown showed up at Queen’s Park to face reporters, who by now had learned that something big was coming.

“A couple of hours ago I learned about troubling allegations about my conduct and my character,” he said, his voice shaking. “These allegations are false, categorically untrue—every one of them. I will defend myself as hard as I can with all the means at my disposal.”

Brown was on the verge of tears. After he finished, he walked robotically from the room and down the stairs, ignoring the pack of reporters yelling questions at him.

It was a disastrous performance.

Minutes later, Velshi tweeted a joint statement from him, Boddington and Robertson.

“Earlier today, all three of us became aware of allegations about Patrick Brown. After speaking with him, our advice was that he should resign as PC leader. He did not accept that advice. Since our view is that this advice was in the best interest of the PC Party, we have therefore resigned our positions.”

Soon after, Bergamini, who had independently decided he had to quit, issued his own statement: “This evening I learned of allegations against Patrick Brown. As a result, it is in the best interest of the PC Party that he step down immediately. As he has chosen to follow a different route, I am resigning as the PC Party Press Secretary.”

Brown and the people who remained loyal to him after he resigned, relaunched his campaign and resigned again, see those statements as a betrayal.

Since that night, the two camps, once united in the quest to make Brown premier and get rid of Wynne, have been set against one another.

In a TVO interview later with Steve Paikin, Brown said that he was set up by people both inside and outside his party.  “I certainly know I was set up. I know it was based on absolute lies and fabrications and now, frankly, one of the things I’m focused on is turning over every stone so I can know who is behind the set up.”

Brown’s people theorized that the whole thing was a palace coup, a plot by supporters of Caroline Mulroney to get rid of him and make her premier, according to people close to Brown. No facts substantiate these claims that Mulroney’s supporters or anyone had in any way schemed to remove Brown, and neutral insiders with knowledge of events reject them.

The Brown people also blame the former staffers for leaking information that subsequently led to damaging stories about Brown. They think the Liberals played a role in the CTV story, but if they have proof of that, it likely won’t come out except as part of a legal action.

They remain bitterly angry at Brown’s staffers for undercutting him with their resignation statement.

“If you believe that you should resign, then you should absolutely resign,” said one person close to Brown. “Given what was on the table at that point, and what was unfolding in front of them, it was either terrible professional judgment, to resign by tweet, or they’re rat f–kers. If you’re staff, you should never be the story.”

Others say the staffers had no choice, because they needed to distance themselves from the disastrous news conference if they wanted to maintain their professional reputations.

After the news conference, Brown returned to his condo with his sisters, Richmond, Soliman, party executive director Bob Stanley and Thompson and another staffer or two. The condo was now full of half-empty Diet Coke containers.

After the CTV report aired, Brown had a conference call with his caucus, a recording of which journalist Jen Gerson later obtained for Maclean’s.

Brown dialed in but kept silent for much of the call, a plan hatched by staffers who thought he might be more likely to resign if he first heard MPPs discuss him without knowing he was on the line.

Brown did not have many allies within caucus. He was closer to the candidates he recruited, and he had pushed for a progressive platform, so many MPPs resented him, either because of hurt feelings over nominations or policy-based disagreements.

While Brown and his staff listened, MPPs started to draft a letter demanding his resignation, even discussing whether they ought to expel him from caucus.

Halfway through the call, Thompson spoke up. “So I’m sitting here with the leader, with Patrick,” she said. “We’ve listened to your entire call.”

The MPPs may have been shocked to learn Brown was on the line, but they didn’t soften their message. They told Brown he had to step down immediately. He continued to plead for his job. A dozen times he asked them to let him hang on until the caucus could meet the next day. They were firm. He had to resign that night. Thompson and Richmond came on the line to plead for time. The MPPs wouldn’t budge. No.

Soliman called a break.

They sat around and reasoned with Brown. The few remaining staffers told him he had to quit. Brown was unconvinced. Finally, Stanley, an organizer who is said to be personally close to Brown, gave his opinion.

“Son, it’s over,” he said.

At 11:30 p.m., seven hours after McGregor’s email landed, Brown was finally starting to accept that he would have to go.

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