Premier Jean Charest says he has forced his beleaguered Family Minister, Tony Tomassi, to resign from cabinet and to leave the Liberal caucus after he discovered that Mr. Tomassi had made personal use of a gas company credit card belonging to the Montreal-based securities firm BCIA.
The minister's firing was another blow to Mr. Charest's government, which has been facing allegations of favouritism and influence peddling in the awarding of government contracts and possible improprieties in Liberal Party fundraising.
Last fall, David Whissell stepped down as labour minister amid a controversy over government contracts obtained by a paving company he partly owned.
According to documents released in the National Assembly on Thursday by the Action démocratique du Québec, BCIA received $8-million in government contracts in 2008. The company also got a $4-million subsidy from a government regional development fund. The head of the company, Luigi Corelli, did not return several calls requesting an interview.
As family minister, Mr. Tomassi had been under fire over reports of irregularities in the awarding of daycare spaces to people with links to party funding activities. Mr. Charest has denied any wrongdoing by his government and his party in these matters.
The Premier said he has asked police to investigate Mr. Tomassi's use of the credit card, and appointed the Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities, Yolande James, to take over the family portfolio.
"These are troubling facts that raise questions," Mr. Charest said during a hastily called news conference late Thursday afternoon. "As Premier of Quebec and head of the government, I could not accept such a situation."
The Premier said Mr. Tomassi used the credit card before he was appointed to cabinet in late 2008. Mr. Charest said he learned about it late Thursday morning. But the Premier refused to say what laws might have been broken by Mr. Tomassi's use of the credit card while sitting as an MNA. He also refused to say how his office received the information.
"Mr. Tomassi confirmed to me the information that was given to us after Question Period," Mr. Charest said. "I'm not going to determine whether it was illegal or not. We've asked the Sûreté du Québec to look into this matter."
The opposition parties on Thursday renewed their demand for a public inquiry into the allegations of influence peddling and favouritism that have plagued the Liberals over the past year.
In the National Assembly on Thursday, the Liberals were bombarded with questions about a report in the Montreal daily La Presse that BCIA employees were forced to attend Liberal fundraising events by Mr. Coretti, who allegedly paid their attendance fees. Mr. Tomassi has close ties with Mr. Coretti, and the opposition parties demanded to know whether the two were involved in improper fundraising.
Quebec's Chief Electoral Officer, Marcel Blanchet, launched a preliminary investigation on Thursday.
Quebec's Election Law bars companies and organizations from making political contributions. Individuals are allowed to donate up to $3,000 per year for each party. The law prohibits employers from reimbursing employee political contributions.
The Parti Québécois called the recent events signs of a corrupt government "which may eventually become a police matter," said PQ leader Pauline Marois.