It's not clear what exactly is going on inside Ontario's Official Opposition party, but something definitely stinks.
For months, local PC nomination contests have been plagued by allegations of impropriety, ballot-stuffing, intimidation, and meddling by top party officials.
When Patrick Brown initially ran for the PC leadership in 2015, he promised a transparent nomination process for candidates. But the controversies are now so numerous that PricewaterhouseCoopers has reportedly been hired to oversee future contests.
Less than a year out from the next election a Press Progress investigation finds no fewer than fourteen ridings mired in internal conflict, controversy, or outright scandal.
One possible explanation is frustration within the grassroots at what some see as a centrist turn under Brown's leadership.
Certainly, he has drawn fire from some hardcore conservatives for embracing a carbon tax and trying to steer away from social conservative causes. Earlier this month, a group of disgruntled activists even broke away to form a new party.
And yet the circumstances surrounding some of the controversies conflict with this narrative, simply painting a picture of a political party in chaos and unable to conduct its internal affairs.
Here's a brief look at each of the various controversies and internal conflicts (so far):
On June 18, the PC nomination in Milton was secured by former federal Conservative MP Parm Gill.
The meeting had originally been scheduled for November 2016, but was suspiciously bumped to June by central party officials "at the last minute."
On October 29, mere weeks before the original nomination was to take place, a Facebook post from Gill seemed to imply that he was already the candidate even though Halton Councillor Mike Cluett was also running:
Gill's Facebook page shows that he was photographed with Brown several times in subsequent months.
When the rescheduled nomination meeting finally did take place in June, Gill's supporters were alleged to have bullied Cluett's, blocking them from being able to cast ballots.
And, according to a City News report: "those registering members to vote and working the ballot boxes were wearing 'Gill' buttons and stickers."
Following Gill's nomination, Patrick Brown was also compelled to address his social conservative leanings.
Appearing in a [since removed] 2015 Punjabi Post Youtube video, Gil reportedly said he entered federal politics because the prospect of same-sex marriage in Canada “pushed [him] over the edge.”
In Durham, regional Councillor Joe Neal claims he received approval from PC officials to seek the nomination before being suddenly blocked on the grounds that he had previously donated money to the Liberals and ran for them during the 1980s.
Neal proceeded to take the party to court, but withdrew his legal challenge after party officials warned him he would not be reinstated even if a judge ruled in his favour.
Brown was then forced to apologize to Neal in writing after falsely accusing him of fundraising for the Liberals as recently as a 2016 byelection.
“I appear to have misspoken,” he wrote in the signed letter to Neal shared with the Toronto Star:
“There is no evidence that you engaged in fundraising against [PC candidate] Lorne Coe in respect of the 2016 Whitby-Oshawa byelection. I regret any misunderstanding.”
The contest in Mississauga-Erin-Mills, meanwhile, was won in January by Sheref Sabawy - who in 2015 had sought the federal Liberal nomination in the same riding.
Patrick Brown's former federal caucus colleague Bob Dechert had also been seeking the nomination though withdrew after reportedly signing up only 80 new members.
But Dechert also alleges the contest was unfair, writing that he had "lost confidence in the integrity of the party’s nomination process" and complaining about the allowance of candidates who had "worked with the Liberals."
“As a former Member of Parliament and active member of the party for more than 40 years, I have become deeply concerned that the party’s recent nomination process in Mississauga Erin-Mills and in multiple other electoral districts, is failing to respect the requirements of the party’s constitution to ensure an open and fair nomination process."
According to local news Mohammad Latif, who had also sought the nomination, withdrew from the contest citing "circumstances beyond his control."
And bizarrely Sabawy, the eventual victor, seemed to suggest improprieties were taking place ahead of the vote.
Among the most chaotic nomination meetings in recent months was the one held in King-Vaughan on April 2.
As Press Progress previously reported, police arrived and the event descended into farce when Konstantin Toubis - who had sought the nomination but was blocked by party officials - arrived with supporters and denounced Patrick Brown as a "dictator".
Despite assurances that they hadn't been sent to "intervere in the political process," Toubis proceeded to denounce the police too:
In a subsequent Facebook post, he blasted Brown and PC Party executives, suggesting they were behaving like communist North Korea and other "countries with dictators in power," also alleging the party had used threats and heavy-handed tactics seen only in the "third world" to hand the nomination to Stephen Lecce, who was formerly Stephen Harper's director of media relations.
Following the contest in Richmond Hill, party members in have raised concerns about the fairness of the process, alleging cheating and the registration of new members without their consent.
Coombs, who is said to have signed up nearly 1,200 new members, has refused to comment on the allegations.
"People showed up [at the nomination voting site] completely bewildered. They didn’t know why they were there. They were just told they needed to come and vote for a particular person...They were pushed into it, feeling threatened because they might lose their status as Canadians."
Richmond Hill Councillor Tom Muench, who supported another candidate and was present at the meeting, has raised similar issues:
“We have lots of questions about who signed their papers for them, where they live, how membership numbers could have grown so drastically.”
An investigation by YorkRegion.com did find evidence suggesting some people were indeed signed up without their express consent or a full understanding of what exactly they were voting for:
"Yorkregion.com contacted 31 names on a list of local PC party members. All but one said they were unaware they were on the list, did not want to belong to the party, did not pay $10 and did not fill out the membership application or sign it. Most were elderly or spoke English as a second language and recalled that Coombs, or someone representing her, knocked on their doors."
In late November, former MPP Jane McKenna secured the Burlington nomination in a meeting personally chaired by party president Rick Dykstra.
But local lawyer and riding membership chair Colin Pye filed a six-page letter with the party detailing alleged problems with the nomination process a few days later.
As the Bay Observer reports:
"Included in the appeal were allegations that some people were permitted to vote who were not on the riding membership voting list and that they were not required to show identification, that McKenna had signed up 25 members who have the same address and that there was no proper security for blank ballots sitting on a table."
Pie's appeal asked for a redo of the meeting, but the request was denied following a hearing that took place by phone.
Earlier this month, Guelph nomination hopeful Thomas Mooney left the running in dramatic fashion, citing "very unsettling occurrences across the province."
A section of Mooney's letter reads:
“From what I’ve been seeing during my campaign, I no longer have the faith with the current leadership to continue in good conscience to run as a candidate for the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.”
On June 20th the entire PCPO riding executive in Kanata-Carleton resigned, citing a “toxic and destructive” environment.
In an email addressed to party president Rick Dykstra and Executive Director Bob Stanley, the resigning members wrote:
“After almost a decade of volunteering — first as donors, then as door knockers and later as riding executives — we believe that we’ve been here long enough to understand the trajectory of the Party’s culture, its people and its identity. We can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as we have ever seen it."
In May, the PCPO riding association board in Newmarket-Aurora wrote a letter to party officials appealing the nomination of Charity McGrath as a candidate.
The letter, among other things, alleged McGrath had been given the Newmarket-Aurora eligible voters list at least two weeks before her fellow candidates, giving her an unfair advantage and breaching party rules.
Starkly, it stated: “The nomination process and election has been tainted by a blatant breach of the nomination rules."
Less than a month later, the entire riding executive resigned en masse.
On May 6, Karma Macgregor defeated runner-up Jeremy Roberts by a margin of 15 votes to secure the PC nomination in Ottawa West-Nepean.
But, following the meeting, riding association president Emma McLennan wrote to Brown detailing allegations of ballot-stuffing after there were reportedly 28 excess ballots in the boxes.
Though it's not entirely clear what happened in the subsequent weeks, the entire riding executive board resigned the following month.
While the specific allegations of impropriety in Carleton remain vague, that hasn't prevented internal conflict from spilling out into the open.
The party nominated young trade lawyer Goldie Ghamari to carry the torch in the newly-created riding last November.
But an email from MPP Lisa MacLeod circulated to prominent Ontario Conservatives including former federal cabinet minister John Baird and Senator Marjory LeBreton attacked Ghamari's candidacy.
"I am gutted by what comes next in Carleton as I not only believe the current candidate will not win but worse, if she does win, she will not be a suitable representative for my constituents who I remain loyal to.”
She also hinted at a "shady" process, but the substance of the allegations remains unclear:
"I have remained silent on the choice of the new PC Candidate in Carleton. I know it is clear to many that she does not enjoy my support - my sign crew in Carleton has all quit the party - not one remains as a result of the shady founding meeting and subsequent nomination (you may recall my speech at the founding meeting where I warned against splitting the party but clear as day, it is split now)."
Partially walking back her statement, MacLeod would later claim the email had been prompted by a video published at The Rebel.
Two prospective candidates in the Hamilton-area riding of Flamborough-Glanbrook have reportedly been informed by party officials that Brown will refuse to sign their nomination papers even if one of them wins the contest.
According to local Tory officials, the party is trying to encourage local councillor Donna Skelly to run.
Earlier this summer, prospective candidate Albert Marshall abandoned the race "after being told the party was looking at appointing a candidate."
On May 7, 25-year-old staffer Ben Levitt secured the PC nomination in Hamilton West-Ancaster Dundas following a heated and controversial meeting defeated candidate Jeff Peller has called "the biggest undemocratic shit show I've ever witnessed."
Both Peller and fellow candidate Vikram Singh appealed to the party to review the nomination, but Brown dismissed the complaint and certified Levitt's candidacy alongside 63 others.
Singh, who finished second, has since taken the PC party to court with a series of allegations including “wrongful insertion of false ballots” – a complaint reportedly being investigated by Hamilton police.
In court filings, Singh claims Brown "encouraged him to run, and even strategized with him and attended a party fundraiser at his parents' home in December."
A Patrick Brown tweet from that month seems to back this up:
And, as the CBC reports:
"Rick Dykstra, provincial party president, said in his own court filing that Singh was seen as "unreliable," and that "demographic analysis" showed Levitt was a better pick. Brown was also worried about some 30-year-old family history. Dykstra also said Brown can pick whatever candidate he wants regardless of who wins a nomination meeting."
Thenusha Parani was officially named the PCPO candidate following a chaotic June 26 meeting which became so crowded that police were called.
Parani has since come under scrutiny for claiming in official documents submitted to the party that she has been a volunteer with Toronto Police 41 Division since 2012 – a claim police dispute.
Several longtime PC members and former cabinet minister Marilyn Mushinski have also called on the party to revoke Parani's nomination on the grounds many of those who signed her nomination papers were not eligible to do so.
Mushinski says the party's provincial executive showed a "total lack of disregard" [sic] for the riding association's candidate search committee, which is said to have vetted two other candidates but was not informed Parani would be on the ballot until the evening of the nomination.
According to Mushinski:
"We feel that we have been absolutely railroaded by [party leader] Patrick Brown and his, dare I say it, henchmen, for lack of a better word, down at PC headquarters. We expected the process to be democratic, fair and transparent, and it has not been since day one...Right now, because I've just got this overwhelming sense of betrayal by my own party, I think it would be an absolute disaster if Patrick Brown became the next premier of the province."
Photo: L. Russwurm. Used under Creative Commons License.