Ontario's Opposition leader is stepping down amid allegations of sexual misconduct, dealing a severe blow to his party just months before the province heads to the polls.
Patrick Brown announced the decision in a statement issued early Thursday morning, following a hastily-called news conference in which the Progressive Conservative leader "categorically" denied what he called "troubling allegations" about his conduct and his character.
In the statement, Brown said that after consulting with caucus, friends and family, he decided to step down as leader but would stay on as a member of the provincial legislature to clear his name.
He said "these allegations are false and have been difficult to hear" and that defeating Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne in the upcoming provincial election is "more important than one individual."
Brown's political future as Ontario's Opposition leader was thrown into turmoil Wednesday as the allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against him prompted calls for his resignation.
In his late-night news conference, a visibly emotional Brown said he was made aware of the allegations hours earlier, but did not provide details on what those allegations were. He said he would defend himself in the court of law.
"I can't speculate on the motive of my accusers, I can only say that what they are saying is categorically untrue," the 39-year-old politician said.
CTV News reported that two women have come forward with graphic sexual misconduct allegations against Brown that date back to when the Opposition leader was a federal MP. The broadcaster did not name the women, who alleged the incidents happened at Brown's home in Barrie, Ont., after they had been drinking in his presence. Brown was not drinking at the time, the women told CTV News.
The report said one of the women, who is now 29, claimed she was still in high school when Brown allegedly asked her to perform oral sex on him.
The other woman said she was a university student working in Brown's constituency office when he sexually assaulted her at his home after an event she helped organize, CTV News reported. The woman said she did not report the alleged incident to authorities.
CTV News said it had viewed records of correspondence between Brown and the women. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Politicians of all stripes were quick to weigh in, with the leader of Ontario's New Democrats calling for Brown to step down.
"I'm disgusted and disturbed by these sexual misconduct allegations," Andrea Horwath said in a statement. "Patrick Brown must resign, immediately. He deserves his day in court, but no person can lead a political party in this province with allegations like these hanging over his head."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne praised the women who made the allegations, saying on Twitter that it is "a difficult and brave thing to do to come forward in the way these young women have done tonight."
Wynne said her government has made it clear that sexual assault and harassment are not to be tolerated but did not comment on Brown directly.
Provincial and federal Conservatives also denounced sexual misconduct and harassment.
"The allegations against the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives are extremely serious and should be investigated fully," federal Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer said in a statement.
Progressive Conservative Lisa MacLeod, a member of the Ontario legislature, said everyone "has the right to be free from unwelcome behaviour or advances."
Even before Brown's decision to resign, speculation began swirling as to who might replace him as PC leader should he step down. MacLeod, Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney were mentioned as possible candidates to take on Wynne in June.
Brown's comments were also followed by a flurry of resignations from his top staff members, who said on Twitter they were stepping down over the leader's handling of the situation.
"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 Party leader. He did not accept that advice," his chief of staff, deputy campaign manager and campaign manager said in a joint statement.
"Since our view is that this advice was in the best interest of the PC Party, we have therefore resigned our positions."
The party's press secretary also announced he was leaving his post.
Ontario PC deputy leaders Sylvia Jones and Steve Clark later issued a joint statement on the party's website saying they "unanimously agree" that Brown cannot continue as leader. They said while Brown is entitled to due process, "he cannot lead us into an election."
Jones and Clark said the PC caucus would "immediately consult with party officials and members on best way to move forward."
Brown repeatedly denied the allegations against him and said he had instructed his lawyers to ensure that they are addressed in court.
He noted that "it's never OK" for anyone to feel they have been a victim of sexual harassment or feel threatened in any way.
"I reject these accusation in the strongest possible terms," Brown said. "This is not how I'm raised. This is not who I am."
He did not take questions from reporters and left immediately after making his statement.
Brown has been leading in the polls as Ontario heads to a provincial election this summer.
He was first elected as federal MP in 2006 as part of the Conservative government after serving as a Barrie city councillor. He was re-elected twice, once in 2008 and again in 2011.
During his time in federal politics, Brown served as a backbench MP in Stephen Harper's government and has been frequently criticized by political opponents for voting in favour of reopening the abortion debate.
He won the PC leadership in 2015, beating long-time Ontario legislator and favourite Christine Elliott.
Since he has become party leader, Brown has attempted to broaden the appeal of his the party, going as far as to say social conservative issues were off-limits at the PC policy convention last fall.
Brown says he is pro-choice and more recently has led Pride parade delegations.