A day after stepping down as economy minister, Pierre Fitzgibbon insists that owning stock in companies that do business with the Quebec government did not place him in a conflict of interest.
Fitzgibbon resigned on Wednesday following a highly critical report by the province's ethics commissioner.
Commissioner Ariane Mignolet made the unusual recommendation to suspend Fitzgibbon from the legislature if he refused to part with his investments in two private companies, the tech firm ImmerVision and White Star Capital, a venture capital fund.
It was the second time in six months that she ruled that Fitzgibbon was violating ethics rules for cabinet ministers.
His failure to comply with ethics rules, Mignolet said in her report, risked sending the message that cabinet ministers could pick and choose what rules to obey.
According to Fitzgibbon, the commissioner's ruling is wrong.
"The company for which I am shareholder, the transactions it does with the government are the following: it pays fees for hydroelectricity, it fills out its tax return and it is repaying a loan it received in 2016. In my definition, that is not doing business with the government," Fitzgibbon said, during an interview with Radio-Canada.
"I completely respect her interpretation, but as economy minister, the functions I had, in my mind there was zero conflict of interest."
Premier François Legault — who has staunchly defended Fitzgibbon over the last two years — says his minister had to choose between losing his cabinet position or losing about $1 million if he opted to sell his stock now, at a loss. He chose the former.
Fitzgibbon says he feels relieved to put the controversy behind him. He will continue his role as an MNA for the riding of Terrebonne, north of Montreal.
Finance Minister Éric Girard will now also take on the role of economy minister.
Ethics rules outdated, premier says
Legault has vowed to push to reform the ethics rules for ministers, arguing that they are outdated and risk discouraging entrepreneurs with extensive private investments from entering politics.
The ethics code came into effect in 2010.
As far as Legault is concerned, Quebec needs business people to manage its economy, and it shouldn't be seen as unusual if a minister owns stock in several businesses, even if they have some ties to the government.
"What has changed since 2010? What does Mr. Legault want to change? Does he want to allow conflicts of interest and the appearance of a conflict of arrest?" said Vincent Marissal, MNA for Québec Solidaire.
"That's not modernization, it's going back 30, 40, 50 years."