MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — The former leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives said Sunday he helped grow the party to unprecedented levels, so he should be the one to lead it into the upcoming election.
Patrick Brown stepped down from his position late last month amid sexual misconduct allegations, which he has repeatedly and categorically denied. On Friday, Brown officially entered the race for his old job.
But beyond the allegations that forced Brown from the party helm, the number of card-carrying Tories the politician offered up is also in contention.
Interim leader Vic Fedeli said in an email to caucus earlier this month that the party has roughly 67,000 fewer members than the 200,000 Brown claimed in early January.
Speaking to a room full of enthusiastic supporters at his official campaign launch in Mississauga, Ont., Brown said in response to reporters that the specific numbers aren't what matters.
"Our membership has gone from 12,000, and whether it's 145,000 or 180,000 or 200,000, it's still the largest we have ever been. Members expire every month, so the number does change," he said.
Moments later on Twitter, a Tory member of provincial parliament attacked Brown on the membership numbers.
Randy Hillier alleged the "70,000 fraudulent memberships" represent $700,000 in missing party funds.
Hillier alleges that this is one of several examples of what he calls "financial impropriety that was undertaken under Brown's direction."
Hillier, who has pledged his support for Christine Elliott as party leader, also alleges that the CFO for Brown's riding, Simcoe North, resigned after being "directed to engage in unethical expenditure of funds."
A spokesperson for Brown did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At Brown's campaign launch today, he said he's proud of the PC party's diverse candidates, saying it is "more representative of the province than it's ever been before."
Joined onstage by his sisters and about a nominated candidates for the Progressive Conservatives, he told supporters his leadership would improve conditions for Ontario's families, and vowed to defeat Kathleen Wynne's Liberal party in the June election.
Dozens of supporters responded frequently and energetically, cheerfully interjecting with catchphrases like "People's Guarantee" and erupting into cheers of "Patrick! Patrick! Patrick!"
Brown addressed the sexual misconduct allegations against him, telling his campaign launch that he believes he's cleared his name.
"What has happened to me, I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. To be vilified without due process is absolutely gutting," he said.
"To be shunned as an outcast from the party that I love over fabricated news reports — it hit me like a ton of bricks."
Brown was expelled from the Tory caucus on Friday, just prior to his announcement that he would once again be running for party leader. He will sit as an independent when the legislature resumes on Tuesday.
Brown has alleged that the two women who accused him of sexual misconduct were lying and may have been manipulated by his political enemies. He said his lawyers are in the process of launching a lawsuit against CTV News, which broadcast the allegations. CTV has said it stands by its reporting.
Two of Brown's competitors for PC leadership, Caroline Mulroney and Doug Ford, have said that Brown joining the race is pulling attention away from what should be the party's real objective: defeating the Liberals.
Brown, meanwhile, characterized the criticism he has faced as "petty internal nonsense" and said it has been a distraction from the issues important to the province.
"We are fighting for the people of Ontario. We can't fight amongst ourselves," he said on Sunday.
Hannah Sadovnick, 22, attended Sunday's rally because she's been a staunch supporter of Brown since she heard him speak at an event at Ryerson University last year.
"Patrick inspired me," she said. "He has so many policies that relate to people my age. He's going to cut back on income taxes, he cares about mental health, he cares about families."
Sadovnick said she doesn't believe the misconduct allegations.
"As soon as I (saw) it I rolled my eyes," she said, adding that she has signed a petition in support of Brown against his accusers. "I'll stand by him the whole way through."
Angely Pacis, the PC candidate for Mississauga Centre who joined Brown onstage, said she doesn't believe the allegations of misconduct will deter voters from supporting the party.
"He's absolutely cleared his name. And just in time, thankfully, for him to enter this leadership race," she said. "I'm so glad he had the courage to come forward."
Maija Kappler, The Canadian Press