Quebec Family Minister Tony Tomassi has been asked to resign from cabinet and from the Liberal Party caucus over ethics concerns, Premier Jean Charest announced on Thursday.
The premier said he had been informed that Tomassi had used a credit card belonging to a private security firm for his own personal purposes.
The credit card use is alleged to have happened prior to Tomassi being named to cabinet in December 2008 when he was still just an MNA, Charest said.
When confronted about the issue, Tomassi confirmed he had used the card belonging to the Canadian Bureau of Investigations and Adjustments (CBIA), a private security firm based in Montreal, Charest said.
"These are troubling facts which raise questions," Charest told reporters in Quebec City. "As premier, I cannot accept such a situation.
'He did not offer me any explanation about what happened ... and [Quebec provincial police] have been asked to look at this information and determine whether there is something that would warrant further investigation.' —Premier Jean Charest
"He did not offer me any explanation about what happened … and [Quebec provincial police] have been asked to look at this information and determine whether there is something that would warrant further investigation."
The news comes as Quebec's chief electoral officer confirmed he has launched an ethics probe into Tomassi's activities.
Newspaper reports on Thursday revealed that CBIA owner Luigi Coretti used his employees to make thousands of dollars in donations to the Quebec Liberal Party in order to help Tomassi, who is a close friend.
Under Quebec electoral law, only individuals, not companies, can make financial contributions to political campaigns, and only up to $3,000 a year. It is also illegal for companies to reimburse their employees for donations made on their behalf.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, seven former employees of CBIA told the newspaper La Presse that between 2007 and 2008, Coretti gave them tickets to Liberal fundraising events.
One of them said they saw Tomassi give Coretti tickets to a Liberal cocktail party held at the Anjou Golf Course in April 2008. The tickets, which cost $500 each, were handed out to a dozen employees. Premier Jean Charest and Public Security Minister Jacques Dupuis both attended the event, the employee said.
The former employees said CBIA workers felt obliged to attend the benefit even though they had not personally paid for the tickets, the paper reported.
In 2008, Coretti declared a donation of $1,000 to the Liberal Party.
CBIA, which recently placed itself under bankruptcy protection, was financed in part by public funds thanks to a $4-million investment by the provincial government's regional economic intervention funds (FIER).
Other ministers probed
Earlier on Thursday, Tomassi did not deny giving the tickets to Coretti.
He said it will be up to elections officials to determine whether any laws were broken.
"I have no control over who Mr. Coretti gives his tickets to," said Tomassi. "I read the article … and they don't say that they were reimbursed for a donation that they made."
Officials with the office of the chief electoral officer have confirmed they have notified Tomassi's Lafontaine riding association that they might verify its records. The decision to launch a formal investigation has not yet been made.
Similar probes into Liberal Party fundraising activities are already underway in the ridings of Education Minister Michelle Courchesne and junior transport minister Norman MacMillan.
On Wednesday, officials confirmed a formal investigation had been opened in the riding of Laviolette, represented by Transport Minister Julie Boulet.
Boulet said officials had confirmed that neither she nor her riding association were the focus of the investigation.
Tomassi had already been under fire over allegations of favouritism in the awarding of daycare spaces following revelations that Liberal Party donors had been awarded permits for publicly funded daycare spaces.
Last week, he faced renewed questions from the opposition over whether his family's company, Groupe Genco, had received a contract to build or renovate publicly subsidized daycares.
Premier rejects calls for inquiry
Despite the ongoing probes into several ministers, there is not enough information as yet to warrant the public inquiry demanded by opposition parties, Charest said.
"In the other cases, all we have are allegations, insinuations and an opposition party who … abuses its [parliamentary immunity] on any subject to try to damage the credibility of the government," the premier said.
The opposition Parti Québecois continued its appeal for a wider-scale investigation into the Liberal Party's fundraising practices.
'The Liberal government … has been corrupted by the power of money," —Québec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir
In a news conference Thursday at the national assembly, PQ House Leader Stéphane Bédard said Tomassi's firing only fuels doubts about the Liberal government's integrity. Bédard said the premier should stop "his denial" and order a public inquiry.
"It is a veritable system that … gives this appearance of corruption and that must be washed," said Bédard.
Those sentiments were echoed by members of the two other opposition parties.
"This does nothing to change the appearance of collusion and the influence of major Liberal Party donors on the government's actions," said Action Démocratique Leader Gérard Deltell.
"The Liberal government … has been corrupted by the power of money," said Québec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir. "If the government is convinced of the contrary, Mr. Charest has no other choice before him but to call a public inquiry."
The Charest government has faced mounting questions about allegations of corruption.
In October, a special police squad, Operation Hammer, was launched to address questions of corruption and collusion in the construction industry following allegations that firms had collaborated with criminal elements to drive up the cost of public contracts.
Then, in April, Charest ordered a public inquiry into Quebec's process of selecting judges after former justice minister Marc Bellemare alleged he was pressured to name certain judges to the bench based on the recommendations of major Liberal Party fundraisers.
Charest said Immigration Minister Yolande James would add Tomassi's duties to her list of responsibilities.