Forced to chose between losing more than $1 million in personal investments and giving up his position as Quebec's economy minister, Pierre Fitzgibbon opted for the latter on Wednesday, leaving cabinet to sit as a backbench Coalition Avenir Québec MNA.
The decision came following a highly critical report by the provincial ethics commissioner, who ruled, for the second time in six months, that Fitzgibbon was violating ethics rules for ministers by owning shares in companies that do business with the government.
Commissioner Ariane Mignolet came to the same conclusion in December, and had called on Fitzgibbon then to sell his stakes in two private companies, the tech firm ImmerVision and White Star Capital, a venture capital fund.
Both companies benefit from financing arrangements offered by Investissement Québec, the investment branch of the Quebec government, which is responsible to the economy minister.
In a report released Wednesday morning, Mignolet revealed that Fitzgibbon still owns his shares in ImmerVision and White Star Capital.
She made the highly unusual recommendation that Fitzgibbon be suspended from the legislature if he refused to part with his investments.
His failure to comply with ethics rules, Mignolet said in her report, risked sending the message that cabinet ministers could pick and choose what laws to obey.
"There is a real risk of feeding the perception that elected officials aren't subject to laws like the rest of the population is," the report said.
Nobody wants to lose a million
Shortly after the report was released, Premier François Legault announced that Fitzgibbon would leave cabinet. Finance Minister Eric Girard will take over the economy portfolio, in addition to his duties at finance.
Speaking in Quebec City, Legault said that Fitzgibbon had been trying to sell his shares in the two companies since he was elected in 2018.
That effort was hindered, Legault said, by the fact both are private companies, meaning they aren't traded on the stock market. Fitzgibbon, a former investment executive, was facing losses of more than $1 million if he opted to sell now, Legault said.
"Even if you're rich, nobody wants to lose a million," Legault said.
The premier, who made a modest fortune as co-founder of Air Transat before entering politics, criticized the ethics rules which bar ministers from owning private companies that deal with the government.
Legault vowed to seek changes to the ethics code in order to make it easier for people with extensive private investments to enter politics.
Their experience is necessary, Legault said, to help the government draft policies that will allow the province to boost economic productivity, one of his long-running concerns.
"If we want to have competent people negotiating with business people, it's better to have people that have experience in the business world," Legault said.
"Most of the people in the business world have investments in companies. So at a certain point we have to ask what sort of people do we want in government taking care of the economy."
He also said it was possible that Fitzgibbon could return to cabinet if he was able to sell his shares in the two companies, or if changes were made to the ethic code.
"I will continue to consult with Pierre," Legault said. "Pierre is a brilliant guy. He knows everyone in the business world."