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Quebec premier accused of demoting minister for flagging problems in department

Last Updated May 18, 2016 at 5:40 pm EDT

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard responds to Opposition questions over contracts given by the Transport Ministry, holding documents he is about to table, Wednesday, May 18, 2016 at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

QUEBEC – Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard on Wednesday denied allegations he demoted his transport minister for flagging irregularities in the Transportation Department regarding public contracts and alleged employee intimidation.

Couillard said he demoted Robert Poeti in January in order to make room in his cabinet for more women and young people.

He added that he knew nothing of Poeti’s problematic findings when the latter was running the Transportation Department.

“The first time I literally heard about all this was during breakfast this morning,” Couillard said.

Couillard said Poeti’s replacement, Jacques Daoust, made sure information about the allegations and related documents were transferred to the provincial police’s anti-corruption unit for further investigation.

Quebec’s L’actualite magazine reported that Poeti had discovered transport employees tasked with reviewing public contracts were being intimidated by their bosses.

The magazine also reported he found out former employees were given several no-bid contracts slightly under the legal limit that would have triggered a public call for tenders.

Moreover, the report said that embarrassing cost overruns on public projects were hidden using accounting tricks.

Couillard said it was “odious” for the opposition to accuse him of demoting Poeti in order to punish him for flagging problems in the department.

“I think we should never have to hear these kinds of things in the legislature,” Couillard said.

Poeti told reporters Wednesday that when he was minister, he hired an external analyst to look into the way the department was being run.

He said he was told “certain employees who were reviewing contracts were being intimidated and that was unacceptable.”

Poeti said he believed Couillard regarding the premier’s claim he was demoted to make the provincial cabinet more diverse.

He added, however, that he would have liked to stay on as transport minister to clean up the department.

Francois Legault, leader of Coalition for Quebec’s Future, said if the reports are true it’s “completely unacceptable and it shows that the cleanup of the department was not done — not in the way contracts are verified or regarding accounting practices.”