A Newfoundland and Labrador minister who resigned Wednesday because of an audit into financial matters at the legislature will be welcome back in cabinet if he is cleared, Premier Danny Williams says.
In a bombshell announcement that has rocked political circles, Williams announced Ed Byrne has relinquished his natural resources portfolio amid an investigation that involves several other members of the house of assembly.
Speaking to reporters at a hastily assembled news conference Wednesday evening, Williams said little about the nature of the complaint against Byrne, other than Auditor-General John Noseworthy is investigating "financial issues" at the house of assembly.
Williams also said that the investigation includes politicians of all parties and that the number of MHAs involved in the probe is in the "single digits."
Williams said he asked Byrne to step aside while the investigation continues, but will accept him back in cabinet if he is cleared.
"That's what this is all about," Williams said. "It's a question of Mr. Byrne standing aside until this matter is dealt with."
Meanwhile, the provincial opposition parties are shocked over allegations that MHAs of all stripes are being investigated for financial irregularities. However, no Liberals or New Democrats are speaking about the matter.
Williams said Noseworthy has been working on an audit that covered issues involving the operation of the legislature. The investigation includes constituency allowances given to politicians for conducting their legislative business.
Noseworthy would not comment on his findings, but said a report will be released Thursday.
Williams said the matter has been turned over to the provincial Department of Justice.
"Whether there will be any criminal charges is for the Justice Department, the police and the prosecutors to decide," said Williams, who said no one should assume any of the people under investigation is guilty.
"They have a right to fairness here and a right to a proper hearing and the right to review any evidence has been accumulated. And I don't even think at this stage these people involved have had a chance to do that," Williams said.
Byrne, 43, has been one of Williams's most trusted lieutenants. A former leader of the Progressive Conservatives, Byrne stepped down to make way for Williams to lead the party in 2001. He has also served as government house leader in the legislature.
Byrne, who is not commenting on the investigation, has represented the St. John's-area district of Kilbride since 1993.
While the news of Byrne's resignation stunned political watchers late Wednesday, Memorial University political scientist Christopher Dunn said Williams's popularity could help him weather this storm.
"Of all of the premiers in the country, the one with the largest amount of political capital is this one," Dunn said.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister John Ottenheimer has assumed Byrne's cabinet responsibilities.