How Patrick Brown's downfall reveals the challenges of vetting candidates

The allegations of sexual misconduct against former Ontario Conservative leader Patrick Brown raise questions about the vetting process for political candidates and whether enough scrutiny is being applied to those seeking office.

Political strategists say parties can only do so much: it often comes down to trust

Patrick Brown at the Conservative Party convention in Toronto Nov. 25. The vetting he underwent prior to his election as leader might have been minimal because he was already a known entity and had been an MP for nearly a decade. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The allegations of sexual misconduct against former Ontario Conservative leader Patrick Brown raise questions about the vetting process for political candidates and whether enough scrutiny is being applied to those seeking office.

But some political strategists say parties, with limited resources, can only do so much investigating, and that it often comes down to trust.

"Vetting ultimately relies a lot on honesty," said Kathleen Monk, an NDP campaign strategist and principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group. "Ultimately, it's up to the candidate themselves to kind of be truthful with the party to ensure that there's no reputational harm that will come to the party as a result of things they've done in the past."

Conservative strategist Tim Powers agreed, saying the system is only as good as the people who properly participate in it.

"I don't think you can move to a place of police-like investigations of candidates," he said. 

Facing reporters on Thursday, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party's two deputy leaders were asked about the vetting of Brown, who resigned after a hastily called news conference Wednesday night in which he denied allegations of sexual misconduct dating back years. Co-deputy Steve Clark had little information to provide, saying only that every candidate goes through a "vetting process."

Federal Sport Minister Kent Hehr resigned from cabinet Thursday, pending an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment dating back to his years as an Alberta MLA. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Brown's resignation as party leader comes as two other high-profile politicians were forced to step down from their posts over harassment allegations:  Federal Sport and Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr and Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party Leader Jamie Baillie.

And in the U.S., many have questioned the vetting process of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, whose campaign was rocked by accusations of sexual misconduct with minors.

Yet when it comes to vetting candidates for a history of alleged of sexual misconduct, those can be very difficult to uncover, especially when no official complaint has ever been filed.


As well, in the past, questions about alleged sexual misconduct may not have even been part of the vetting process.

"I cannot recall a single instance of ever having asked, 'Is there anything about your conduct that would constitute sexual impropriety,'" said Charles Bird, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and the former Ontario director of the federal Liberal campaign from 2005 to 2006.

"I would probably be inclined to ask it now if I were to vet these days, because, quite rightly, the rules have changed."

Instead, candidates have generally been asked to fill out elaborate questionnaires, often administered by each party's "greenlight committees," which are responsible for determining whether a given candidate should be allowed to stand for nomination.

Those questionnaires may include questions about a candidate's personal and political history, personal finances, latest tax assessments and any criminal record. Some parties may now ask for access to a candidate's social media accounts as controversial posts have led to the downfall of some office seekers.

'No template'

"There's no template for how to do this," said Chad Rogers, a Conservative political strategist and partner at Crestview Strategy. "I've seen varying degrees of intensity." 

But an important part of the vetting process, said Bird, is the question-and-answer sessions.

Brown left Queen's Park immediately after making his statement early Jan. 25 and refused to take questions. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

"Part of the vetting process is asking the right question and getting at the attitudes of the person whom you are interviewing," he said. "That's usually our first indication as to whether a prospective candidate is centrist and balanced in his or her views."

However, Bird said, there comes a point in the process — the "come clean now moment" — when he tells a candidate:

"'This is when you have to give me everything that you think could be a concern down the line, because as sure as God made green little apples, somebody is going to come up with something that will embarrass you if you don't come clean with it now.

"And some folks simply won't realize that stuff that could be really really detrimental to their chances going forward is actually relevant."

'Can't police stupid'

That, according to Rogers, is why in his 20 years of experience in crisis communications, the scandals that bring down political candidates are those that involve actions that they are never willing to disclose  — either because of shame or sheer lack of self awareness.

"You can't police stupid," he said. "It's not that there's an inadequate vetting. It's that when people behave badly, shame enters the world as a secret or a lie."

As for vetting party leaders, Powers said they don't go through the same process as a candidate.

"When a leader is running, when someone is seeking the leadership of the party, the race itself is effectively the vetting process," he said.

With someone like Brown, who had been an MP for nearly a decade, people wouldn't have necessarily thought twice, Power said.

"So somebody may have a long service record at a particular level of politics and people will assume … all is good."

Still, most leadership candidates will also have that "very frank conversation" in which they are asked by their campaign team if they should be aware of something, in their past, that could be raised as an issue.

"I have no way of knowing if it happened with Patrick during the leadership race or with his campaign team," Powers said.

With files from James Murray