Chris Stockwell, Ontario's much-travelled environment minister, quit the Progressive Conservative cabinet yesterday after 10 days of defending himself over his travel expenses.
His resignation marks the departure of two ministers over spending in nine months and comes as Premier Ernie Eves is trying to drag his party out of the popularity doldrums that prevented him from calling a planned spring election. Last fall, then-tourism-minister Cam Jackson was forced to step down over lavish steak dinners and hotel stays he charged to taxpayers.
The downfall of 46-year-old Mr. Stockwell started on June 5 when The Globe and Mail carried a story detailing spending of between $5,000 and $10,000 by Ontario Power Generation on a two-week tour of Europe by Mr. Stockwell, his wife and their two children.
OPG is a Crown corporation that was under Mr. Stockwell's direction at the time.
Mr. Stockwell's exit leaves a major hole in the cabinet as he was government House leader as well as environment minister.
Mr. Eves named temporary replacements, asking Energy Minister John Baird to take on the job of Government House Leader, responsible for managing the government's agenda in the legislature. Mr. Baird had been deputy House leader.
Northern Development Minister Jim Wilson will assume the environment portfolio. He is a former health and energy minister.
Mr. Eves released a statement praising Mr. Stockwell for resigning and suggesting he could be back in the cabinet soon if Integrity Commissioner Coulter Osborne determines that he broke no rules by not declaring money he received for travels as a gift.
"The minister has done the right thing and has stepped aside pending the results of an independent review by Ontario's Integrity Commissioner, the Honourable Justice Coulter Osborne," Mr. Eves said.
In his statement, Mr. Stockwell said public pressure had forced his resignation.
"Over the past few days, it has become increasingly obvious that questions surrounding expenses I incurred as minister of the Crown are detracting from the day-to-day business of the government. There continue to be a great many issues of significance to the families of Ontario that are being overshadowed by the ongoing discussion of my expenses," Mr. Stockwell said.
"Out of respect for my family, my caucus colleagues, the people of Ontario and my constituents, I have earlier this evening informed the Premier of my decision to step aside as minister of the environment and government House leader until these issues are resolved."
Mr. Stockwell added, "I look forward to the Integrity Commissioner's report."
The revelations that OPG picked up a share of Mr. Stockwell's travel costs spurred further examination of Mr. Stockwell's spending habits, which showed he had used $77,000 of constituency association funds raised with taxpayer-supported credits to help pay for travel over the past three years.
The trips taken by Mr. Stockwell, his aides and family included stopovers in Sydney, Hawaii, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Helsinki, London, Glasgow, Paris and Rome.
Mr. Stockwell defended the use of government and taxpayer funds to pay for family travel when he faced the legislature last Wednesday.
"I'm very, very busy and if there's time to spend with your family you take it," he said then.
But critics increasingly called for his resignation.
Liberal energy critic Michael Bryant noted last week, "I don't think Ontarians believe that one of the perks of cabinet should be access to enormous amounts of money to be used, basically, for personal and family benefit."
New Democratic Party House Leader Peter Kormos complained: "Clearly for a guy like Stockwell, becoming a cabinet minister has increased the price of admission for those who want to court and greet him. At the same time, that makes his gate receipts all that much higher and enables him to lead that much more flamboyant a lifestyle."
The latest controversy is not the first time Mr. Stockwell has been in trouble over his expenses. Last year, he was forced to repay $3,000 in bar tabs that he and his staff incurred while he was labour minister but had originally billed to taxpayers.
Mr. Stockwell entered the legislature in 1990. Although he had been a strong performer in opposition, former premier Mike Harris did not put him in the cabinet after the 1995 election. Mr. Stockwell complained loudly until his fellow MPPs, especially opposition MPPs, voted him as Speaker after Al McLean was forced to step down from that post because of a sex scandal in the fall of 1996.
After the June, 1999, election, Mr. Harris named Mr. Stockwell as labour minister.
He ran fifth in the five-candidate fight for the Tory leadership last year but impressed Mr. Eves enough to be named minister of environment and of energy as well as House leader.
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Stockwell refused to say how many vehicles Ontario Power Generation rented for the use of his family and his aides and their spouses while the group was in Paris last July.
"It's all been referred to the Integrity Commissioner," he said.
Mr. Stockwell has asked Mr. Osborne to rule on whether he did anything wrong by accepting $5,000 to $10,000 from Ontario Power to defray the ground transportation costs of his trip.
Under the Members' Integrity Act, MPPs aren't allowed to accept a "gift or personal benefit" connected with their governmental duties. However, they are allowed to receive gifts at official functions, but the act says anything worth more than $200 must be reported to the commissioner.
Mr. Stockwell didn't report a gift or benefit from OPG, a government-owned utility, for the trip, according to the most recent filing he made at the commissioner's office.
The car rental in Paris for Mr. Stockwell and his group would help determine whether the spending from OPG is viewed as part of an official function, or an undeclared gift for his family if more than one vehicle was involved.