The phone call that ended Patrick Brown’s leadership

EXCLUSIVE: On the night news broke about allegations against the leader, the Ontario PC caucus held an extraordinary, tension-filled conference call. Here’s what was said.

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Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown leaves Queen’s Park after a press conference in Toronto on Wednesday, January 24, 2018. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

Brown leaves Queen’s Park after a press conference in Toronto on Jan. 24 (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

Only 15 minutes before CTV went to air with explosive allegations of sexual misconduct against Patrick Brown, the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader delivered a tearful press conference and, to the shock of many, refused to resign.

In the era of #MeToo, the claims by the two young women were thought to be politically unsurvivable. Brown has stridently denied the allegations, which have not been proven in court, and recently joined the race for the party leadership in hopes of regaining his former position. On Friday, he filed notice of libel against CTV News.

On the night of the conference call, he’d already decided to fight back, aggressively.

Among the most shocked were members of his own caucus, most of whom seemed to come to the conclusion that Brown must resign. That very night. The political pressure was mounting, they noted, both in traditional and social media. The party simply couldn’t fight an election with Brown at the helm—the allegations against him, and his desperate bid to stay in power, would direct all attention away from their primary objective of defeating Kathleen Wynne. All of these fears would eventually prove to be founded.

Shortly after that Jan. 24 press conference, in which Brown declared his intention to stay on as leader, the PC caucus convened two emergency conference calls; one that began at about 10:30 p.m. The second, during which Brown eventually did agree to resign, began at midnight.

Maclean’s obtained audio of the first call, which involved at least 20 of the party’s 28 caucus members, and was secretly recorded. The tape has been authenticated by three well-placed sources. Two sources with knowledge of who spoke during the call identified who said what. The sources said they believe the tape captures the entirety of the conversation.

When reached late Friday, Patrick Brown’s spokeswoman, Alise Mills, said they couldn’t comment for this story. “We can’t comment on something we haven’t seen. So no additional comment from us.”

READ MORE: The doggedness of Patrick Brown

In the tape, caucus appears to be united against Brown and the prospect of his continued leadership. Led by MPP Randy Hillier and party whip John Yakabuski, they discuss the details of drafting a united caucus statement demanding Brown’s resignation. While some MPPs debate timing or wording, no one comes to Brown’s defence in any meaningful way. The members speak freely amongst themselves, apparently confident that their leader is not listening to the call.

The recording—which has been edited below for clarity and conciseness but which runs here almost in its entirety—begins with caucus whip John Yakabuski explaining to his colleagues the nature of the predicament: “I can sit here and say, in my 15 years, nobody has been any more loyal to their leaders than me,” he says. “I feel for Patrick, but my honest view in the climate we live in today and what we saw with Glen McGregor’s press [report] there…we would be facing 1993 for the federal Conservatives if Patrick leads us in this campaign.”

“And I don’t think he could have handled the press conference any worse. I mean, I thought his statements were fine, but then the way he, it’s just, he talked about the court of public opinion. That’s where we’re living, folks. Every one of us depends on that public opinion in our own ridings, too. And we’re not impervious to what’s going on with our leader. I think that jointly, we should, in a very kind and compassionate way, request as a unified caucus that Patrick step down.”

The recording chirps with beeps and rings as more caucus members enter the call. One agrees. Another says a roll call must be held. Caucus members are still dialling in.

Some are careful to avoid assuming the allegations made against Brown are true.

“It’s Gila here,” says MPP Gila Martow. “I think we have to be very careful that we’re not saying we believe one side or the other side. We don’t know the facts. But just that we have to ask that he step aside because this matter has to be settled while he is not the leader and then if it gets settled to everybody’s satisfaction, we would welcome him back to the team in some capacity. Whatever was available. But I think that we have to be careful with the language that we’re not accusing anybody.”

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The roll call continues. The conference is chaotic, beeps throughout indicating someone has joined or dropped the call.

“It’s Yurek speaking,” says MPP Jeff Yurek. “We need a statement tonight. We can do one as a group tomorrow but we need something tonight because I’m getting hammered already.”

A female MPP says: “Well, we all are getting hammered. We’ve got to take a breath here.”

Yakabuski begins to draft a statement on behalf of caucus on the fly: “Dear Patrick on behalf of the members of Progressive Conservative caucus, I am writing to inform you that it has been decided that it is in the best interest of the party and ultimately the people of Ontario that you resign your role as leader as the PC Party of Ontario and leader of the opposition effective immediately.”

“Asking him to resign? That’s weak,” a male voice responds.

“That you must resign,” Sylvia Jones corrects.

Other members weigh in. “Good enough for me.” “I second it.”

Next: the matter of whether Brown will be able to remain in caucus.

“I hadn’t considered that yet, but I would suggest if he resigns as leader that’s not likely going to be an issue because we’re not going to see him at caucus. But having said that he is still the sitting MPP,” Yakabuski says.

He’s still an elected member, one notes.

Finally, MPP Ted Arnott asks caucus about the allegations themselves. The CTV report was still so fresh that some members had not heard the claims in full.

“What, exactly, do we know for sure?” Arnott asks.

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“Two women accused him and so far four—two of his top staff and two of his top campaign team—have urged him to resign,” Jones responds.

“Who are the women? Do we know who they are and what exactly are they alleging?” Arnott continues.

“I’ve read the allegations, Ted. They’re two young women and there’s—I’m not going to reiterate,” Hillier says.

Ontario Conservative MPP Randy Hillier speaks with journalists outside the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Tuesday, February 20, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

“Next question,” a male voice continues, “has anybody reached out to Patrick to try to talk some sense into him?”

His campaign team—the same one that just resigned en masse—had tried to convince Brown to quit. They failed.

“Don’t you think it makes sense to approach him and tell him this is about to happen before we do it, and allow him the opportunity to resign on his own?” Arnott asks. “He has to resign after we do this, and it’s worse for (us) if it plays out that way.”

“Well it’s not like we’re going to publicize it but he’s made it clear. He’s allowed. Ted, we’re in the midst almost, you could say we’re in the campaign,” Yakabuski says. “He put his self interest ahead of us and the party by basically saying you guys can all quit, but I’m not. I really want you to think about that.”

Martow says she is texting with Walied Soliman—one of the senior campaign staffers who has chosen to stand by Brown. “I said: ‘It’s Gila here. He will be asked to resign by caucus. Unanimous. It would be far better if he steps down while he clears his name. I’m on the conference call with caucus right now.’ So at least we, you know, we tried to make it more pleasant.”

Laurie Scott asks what the party constitution says, and Sylvia Jones concedes that it doesn’t grant caucus the right to fire the leader.

“If we call for his resignation unanimously, it doesn’t matter what is in the constitution,” Arnott says. “He will have to resign.”

The roll call continues, as the caucus tries to figure out who is on the line, who the caucus spokesman will be, and who is writing the letter.

MPP Ernie Hardeman is the one who throws a stick in the spokes.

“I totally agree with unanimous position but I don’t agree with the at midnight in the night,” he says, “when there is no news cycle, a unanimous decision on a caucus call when not everybody is there. We should meet tomorrow morning and we should settle this all in a proper way. Tomorrow morning is still considered acting immediately.”

But others quickly note this is simply not a political climate that will tolerate stalling.

“Today we had the doctor from United States gymnasts, 175 years in jail. We had the Leader of PCs in Nova Scotia resign—same issue,” Yakabuski says. “We had the RCMP going on about numerous multiple recruits and candidates for recruitment being sexually assaulted by a doctor. The climate is such that any delay only gives more time for negative response from people that feel that we’re not ready to be the government.”

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The caucus debates whether to issue a statement saying they will meet in the morning, which would give caucus time to review the allegations more thoroughly, and to ensure the decision is truly unanimous. But as the conference continues, messages about the allegations against Brown and his dismal press conference continue to proliferate on Twitter.

“We live in an age of social media we can’t wait for the next news cycle,” says Yurek. “This is happening now. Lisa [MacLeod] is getting multiple tweets and comments about issuing a statement. So we need to do something now. I can’t wait until the morning on this. I am not going to let my reputation dwindle and be questioned because of an allegation on our leader and we’re just mollycoddling around trying to make the right decision. We need to act now. We need to make a statement. Otherwise I’m going to make my own statement, because we all know at the end of the day he needs to step aside, show accountability and leadership until this is cleared up.”

Caucus unity is quickly dissolving, with the risk that individual members will strike out alone and denounce Brown should the group refuse to issue a collective statement demanding his resignation.

Suddenly, a non-caucus member chimes into the call.

“Hey everybody, it’s Rebecca Thompson.”

Thompson is Brown’s deputy chief of staff for communications.

“So I’m sitting here with the leader, with Patrick,” she says. “We’ve listened to your entire call.”

The conference goes silent for several beats.

There is muttering in the background. “I will pass that on.”

“Are you listening?” Thompson asks.

Yes, they’re listening.

“What we’d like to do is to have a discussion with you about this. Tomorrow morning. Patrick wants to listen to everything that you have to say. And then Patrick is going to step down,” she says.

Patrick Brown speaks into the line.

“You guys, it’s Patrick. You guys, I’m always going to do what’s right for the party so please don’t pre-empt this. I just want to talk to you guys tomorrow to tell you why I feel this is unmitigated falsehood. But we even have a female who was with me that night who has signed a statement to that effect who was in photos with me that night, saying that this is completely false. But ultimately I realize this is an age of social media. I am always going to do what’s right for the party, just give me the chance to meet with caucus tomorrow rather than rush into any decisions at midnight. “

Randy Hillier responds: “Patrick, you don’t have a campaign team and you don’t have the confidence of caucus. And we’re a few short months away from an election.”

There is another beat of silence.

“There is no other decision to be made.”

“Randy, I’m always going to do what’s right for the party but let’s go over all this tomorrow. I’m not going to make a decision at midnight,” Brown says.

“What’s right for the party, Patrick, is for you to step down,” Hillier says.

“Randy, first of all you’re asking me to accept allegations that are categorically wrong, false, lies. Having said that, even though they are false and lies, I’m a team player so let’s meet tomorrow and find out what the best course of action is,” Brown says.

Hillier: “Your team has vacated you, Patrick.”

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Brown disagrees.

“Randy, I’ve got Bob Stanley here, Walied Soliman here. I’ve had the caucus chair Toby Barrett call me and tell me I have his full support. Having said that, despite the fact that we have the caucus chair, the campaign manager Bob Stanley, my interim staff Rebecca Thompson all here offering their support, what I will say is I’m not going to do anything that hurts the party.”

“This is hurting the party, Patrick. Patrick, this is hurting the party. This is really hurting the party,” says MPP Sam Oosterhoff.

“Listen, it’s like being hit by a truck with these statements,” Brown says. “Imagine this happened to any of you. Imagine people are making up bullshit about you and you’ve got no time to respond. So what I’m asking is, let’s meet tomorrow and we will find an orderly way to go about this. I’ll be party-first.”

“What would you consider ‘in orderly fashion,’ Patrick?” asks Hillier.

“Well, let’s figure that out tomorrow,” Brown counters.

“I think there is strong motivation and requirement that we deal with this tonight and understand what possibly could be your orderly departure,” Hillier says.

“Randy, if it’s necessary for me to resign in the best interests of the party I will. But what I want to do is I want to meet with caucus tomorrow. We’ll bring Walied and Bob and Mike and everyone and we will make a decision together. What I’m saying is, let’s not rush to a judgement at midnight. And you know we’ll talk about everything tomorrow. You guys take your time to [inaudible] folks and we’ll deal with this tomorrow,” Brown says.

“I think if I could put any stock in your statement, Patrick, it would have required a conference call ahead of your press conference this afternoon,” Hillier says.

Sylvia Jones asks Brown if he is prepared to resign right after a morning meeting with caucus.

“I’m prepared to resign if that’s the will of the [inaudible],” Brown says.

Party deputy leaders Ontario MPP Sylvia Jones at a news conference in Toronto on Thursday Jan. 25, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

This sparks a round of debate about what time to hold the meeting, with one MPP noting that it’s not easy for some rural MPPs to attend Queen’s Park in downtown Toronto first thing in the morning.

Some begin to sound exasperated; they need to get this done. The media clamour is only going to get worse as the hours tick by.

Brown makes his pitch: “I said if it’s the will of the team then I’m prepared to resign. But can we please allow me to do this with some dignity to meet with you guys tomorrow. We have half a caucus on this call. I’m saying that I’m going to be a team player. I’ve been a Conservative all my life. I’m never going to put the party in a difficult position so we will decide what to do tomorrow. You’ve got my commitment that if I need to fall on my sword, even though and I stress this, they’re complete bullshit lies. Even though they are, I will always do what’s right for the party. Let’s meet tomorrow, pick a time that works for everyone and I will be there and I’m willing to fall on the sword.”

Jones notes that there are, in fact, more than 20 MPPs on the call. “I think the number I have is 21 who are on the call,” she says. “I can’t justify to the media that travel schedules did not allow us to meet until 3 o’clock. I just can’t.”

“We need to make this decision tonight,” Oosterhoff says.

“Why don’t we pick a time as early as it’s possible tomorrow that works for caucus,” Brown says. “If 10 a.m. is too early, make it 11 a.m. I think it signals I’m going to meet with caucus to go over this shows that we’re taking this seriously.”

Hillier has been Brown’s primary antagonist. But in the end, it’s MPP Lisa MacLeod who drives the point home:

“I think the time for taking it seriously went when John Sinclair [executive director of PC caucus services] called me this evening and the fact that we lost our senior campaign team. Most members on this call have been elected as long as me—some maybe a little bit longer or a little bit less.

“We’re going into a campaign and we’ve just lost it now. I think Patrick, with all due respect, you don’t have the confidence of your campaign team. You don’t have the confidence of our caucus. You actually have to give those on this call and those candidates you recruited a fighting chance on June 7. And the only way you’re going to be able to do that is to reverse your decision that you made this evening on your press conference. And I know many members of this caucus are antsy, but the reality is that we’re in a day and age that we need to be very clear about who we are, and we need to be very clear on where we stand. And I think for the good of the party the best thing you could do is to let us run this Progressive Conservative (party) in the next election without 20 more minutes of this conversation.”

But Patrick Brown needs a day.

“Lisa, I believe passionately that we need change. I believe passionately in our message,” Brown says. “I would never want to stop us from getting to the finish line. One day is not going to make a difference and you have my commitment that I will do what is right. Another press conference at midnight would be ridiculous.”

“Actually, it wouldn’t. It would give us a fighting chance tomorrow morning to start off the day fresh,” she counters.

Ontario PC party MPP Lisa MacLeod arrives for a meeting to pick an interim leader to lead them into the June provincial election at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Friday, January 26, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

“Patrick, you are at the finish line,” Hillier says. “Tonight is the time to make the decision I think it’s clear and overwhelming that caucus wants you to step down and I think you should now consider how best you can do that to save what is left of your reputation, and possibly live to fight another day.”

“Randy, I will do what is needed, but I’m not going to do it at midnight. Please allow me to do this with some dignity,” Brown pleads.

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“And I will not be waiting, Patrick,” Hillier says.

The caucus begins to squabble over the media.

“We can’t have every member going on their own doing things singularly which doesn’t speak in a unified voice with every member trying to save their own ass which is not what we need to do, we need to save our collective ass,” Yakabuski says.

“Patrick I think you can see what’s happening here,” he continues.  “The longer this goes on the more chance there is of further damage, of people doing things and people will feel under a great deal of pressure. And (if) people are approached by a women’s group or something? Or somebody like Laurie, our women’s critic. What is she going to say?” he asks. “If I’m approached by the sexual assault centre in Renfrew County? How am I going to answer this?”

Brown holds firm: “You guys, I’m not going to make a decision at 11:20. I’ve got the team here I’ve got Bob and Walied and everyone let me talk to them. I’m not doing this at 11:20. I will do what’s right for the party.”

Brown doesn’t yet know it, but the question of what’s right for the party has been decided. It just hasn’t been decided by him.

“It will be better for you, Patrick, if you do it. Rather than caucus,” Hillier says. “We’re giving you the option to exit on your own terms tonight before caucus sends a statement out tonight.”

The premier has just posted on Twitter. NDP leader Andrea Horwath is also weighing in, calling for Brown’s resignation. “She beat us to the punch.”

If Brown has agreed to resign, they reason, why are they waiting? The sooner it’s done the better, no?

“You guys, I’m not going to do this tonight. I’m willing to fall on my sword tomorrow if that’s what caucus wants. But I have been getting conflicting messages. I spoke to [MPPs] Toby, I spoke to Ross, I spoke to others. Having said that you guys are making it pretty clear to me,” Brown says. “I will always do what is best for the party. [Inaudible] give me the dignity to do this properly tomorrow. Here’s Mike you want to say something too.”

Party lawyer Mike Richmond can be heard on the line.

“It’s pretty clear listening to this where caucus is and we all see what is going on here. I know you all, I know you are all great people I know you all put yourself in (Patrick’s) shoes to some extent and recognize that after politics a young guy has to make a living and find something else to do— whenever that after-politics is,” he says. “I’m asking you a favour as what I consider friends, let him do this his way so he still has a chance of doing something with his future. Please. Just out of pure decency.”

“He could have a good future when he beats the allegations in court but we’ve gone past the public opinion, that’s the problem, Mike,” Jones says.

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Yakabuski then asks the obvious question: “Mike, when you say on his terms, what do you mean on his terms? Like 10 o’clock tomorrow morning? Like, like, this can’t go on. Like, it can’t be after tomorrow.”

Richmond begs for more time to write a statement with some dignity: “Give him some time to write a statement or a speech and do it in the light of day not in the cloak of darkness which is embarrassing, itself.”

“We didn’t embarrass ourselves, okay?” MacLeod says. “We were all just at work and coming home for supper when all this broke, Mike.”

Vic Fedeli, now interim leader, says that if Brown is going to resign, then caucus needs to show it is decisive.

MPP Todd Smith adds: “And listen, as far as Patrick having the opportunity to defend himself and tell his side of the story: trust me, the media is going to want to cover that. But we have to rip that Band-Aid off tonight if that’s the decision that’s going to be made. Patrick will have every opportunity tomorrow with the biggest media throng that he has ever seen to tell his side of the story and to defend his own reputation. It’s not as if we are taking that away from him. That is going to happen. But as far as we’re concerned, for the good of the party, I think we have to put out a statement at midnight tonight after a thoughtful and heartfelt conversation with caucus, the leader came to the decision that this is the right thing to do he will be holding his own press conference at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning.”

A Queen’s Park legislative staff member takes down former PC leader Patrick Brown’s office name at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Friday, January 26, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Rebecca Thompson, Brown’s director of communications, begins to argue about the news cycle, saying it begins at 6 a.m. Caucus doesn’t need to put out a statement before 6 a.m.

Meanwhile, Twitter continues to chatter; CityNews has a political strategist saying Patrick Brown will try to continue on as party leader on the heels of a provincial election.

Jones asks Rebecca to confirm that the resignation statement will go out at 5:45 the next morning.

“Caucus should put out a statement now saying that Patrick Brown will be announcing his resignation tomorrow morning,” Hillier says.

“No, no. Again, again, again, for the sake of,” Rebecca Thompson tapers off. “He’s been your leader for the past three years for the sake of ensuring that…”

“For the sake of the party it needs to be done tonight,” Hillier says.

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“Randy, for the sake of the fact that he can have a dignified release about this,” Thompson pleads.

“He can still have that,” a male MPP says.

“He can still have that without caucus pushing down the pedal on this,” Rebecca says.

“We’re giving you the option to do it now,” Hillier says.

Mike Richmond interjects: “…human being for five…let it be his decision, not yours. Don’t execute him. You don’t need to execute him. Please.”

“By the way, you’ll make the story worse,” Rebecca Thompson adds.

“If you drag it out,” Hillier says.

Caucus members finalize the details of the release; they want Brown to focus on his resignation, not to use the opportunity to defend the allegations of sexual impropriety.

Walied Soliman gets on the line and asks for a thirty-minute break.

The caucus will reconvene at midnight.

Contact Jen Gerson at [email protected]