In a historic first, minister Pierre Fitzgibbon blamed and censured by the National Assembly

Quebec Economy and Innovation Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon responds to the opposition during question period at the National Assembly in Quebec City, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

For the first time in its history, the National Assembly of Quebec blamed a minister for his lack of ethics, inflicting a humiliating reprimand on Pierre Fitzgibbon on Thursday.

Although he is claiming innocence, the minister of the economy will have to live with this stain on his file for the rest of his political career.

In a unanimous vote in the Salon Bleu on Thursday morning, the CAQ, Liberal, PQ, Quebec solidaire and two independent elected representatives, including ministers and Premier Francois Legault, officially endorsed the recommendation from ethics commissioner Ariane Mignolet.

One of the government's most recognizable faces, Fitzgibbon was absent from the Salon Bleu during the censure vote of his peers.

He abstained from voting.

According to the rules in force, two-thirds of the deputies must approve the ethics commissioner's conclusions for her recommendation to turn into formal censure of the National Assembly.

In an investigation report made public at the end of October, she concluded that Fitzgibbon had placed himself in a situation where his personal interest could influence his independent judgment, as a member of the government, because of his friendship and financial dealings with businessman and lobbyist Luc Laperriere.

She criticized him for being too close to Laperriere, who was entitled to privileged access to the minister, while he was promoting three business cases with the ministry headed by Fitzgibbon.

The commissioner called Fitzgibbon's independence into question, due to the fact that Laperriere had agreed to acquire Move Proteine shares held by the minister, which he had to dispose of. Fitzgibbon requested Laperriere help him out.

However, this chumminess between a businessman and a minister was likely to harm "the maintenance of the confidence of the population in democratic institutions," said the commissioner responsible for enforcing the code of ethics and professional conduct of elected officials, adopted in 2010.

"When you hold a position like that of minister, it is essential to clearly draw the line between your personal and professional relationships. In view of the above, I recommend that a reprimand be imposed on the minister," she concluded.

She also criticized Fitzgibbon for showing no intention of amending the situation.

On Wednesday, Fitzgibbon took advantage of the right to speak made available to him on the eve of the vote to give his version of the facts.

He rejected the commissioner's conclusions, claiming to have always acted in good faith and believing that he had never placed himself in a situation of conflict of interest or an appearance of a conflict of interest. He admitted, however, that he should be more careful in the future.

There is no precedent for an ethics reprimand for a minister, but in 2017 the former CAQ MNA who became independent Claude Surprenant was the subject of a reprimand by the ethics commissioner, which was approved by the National Assembly.

While a member of the CAQ, he had allowed or tolerated employees in his constituency office to do partisan work while being remunerated with public funds.

In 2018, the former Liberal minister who became an independent MNA Pierre Paradis also had trouble with the ethics commissioner, after being blamed for having ensured that his daughter took advantage of the housing allowance elected officials receive. In this case, however, the Couillard government refused to endorse the commissioner's recommendation. He was therefore able to avoid the judgment of his peers and thus escape a penalty of $25,000.

-- this report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2020. 

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