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Thursday, April 29, 1999

Quebec's revenue minister quits amid scandal
Information from child-support files given to polling firm

Campbell Clark
National Post

Jacques Boissinot, The Canadian Press / Rita Dionne-Marsolais, Quebec's Revenue Minister, resigned over the disclosure of private information.

MONTREAL - Rita Dionne-Marsolais, Quebec's Revenue Minister, resigned yesterday after the province's access-to-information commission concluded her department broke the law by giving private information from child-support files to a polling firm.

She is the first minister in the government of Lucien Bouchard, the Quebec Premier, to quit in scandal. It was not the first time for Ms. Dionne-Marsolais, however, who quit as Jacques Parizeau's culture minister in 1995.

Her voice shaking, Ms. Dionne-Marsolais announced her resignation from cabinet in a brief press conference at Quebec's National Assembly, but took no questions from reporters. A few minutes later, Mr. Bouchard looked solemn as he said the access commission's report gave him no choice but to accept the resignation.

Ms. Dionne-Marsolais had been under pressure to resign for more than a week, after Roch Cholette, a Liberal MNA, revealed that her department had released the private information to SOM Inc., a Quebec City polling firm, so it could conduct a telephone survey for the Revenue Department.

The information is from files from Quebec's mandatory child-support collection system, created in 1996, under which all court-awarded child-support payments are collected by the Revenue Department and reimbursed to ex-spouses.

In March, the Revenue Department gave SOM Inc. the names, addresses, and work and home telephone numbers for thousands of child-support recipients and their former spouses -- and an indication of whether the parent had defaulted on child-support payments. It also included the names and telephone numbers of 2,000 people, not in the collection program, and their former spouses, drawn from tax files.

The minister defended the move, saying she had checked with senior Revenue Department officials, including the department's legal director, and was assured the release of information was properly controlled, and legal. She was forced to resign yesterday after the Access-to-Information and Privacy Commission concluded they were wrong.

The commission said the information drawn from tax files - even names and telephone numbers - can never be transmitted to outsiders. And while by law, child-support information is not as rigidly protected, the Revenue Department did not follow the required safeguards.

In he brief statement, Ms. Dionne-Marsolais said she wanted to assure Quebecers that none of their essential tax information was released.

"Having said that, as revenue minister, responsible to the National Assembly, I note that, according to the access-to-information commission's opinion, the ministry broke its own law," she said. "I am profoundly trouble by this opinion."

Ms. Dionne-Marsolais was said to be shaken when she learned of the access commission's conclusions when she entered a cabinet meeting yesterday, and quickly tendered her resignation.

Nicole Malo, the department's deputy minister, resigned later.

The opposition Liberals, however, suggested the scandal is not over. Thomas Mulcair, a Liberal MNA, suggested there may be other, similar cases of breaches of privacy.

Bernard Landry, Quebec's Finance Minister and the man who recruited Ms. Dionne-Marsolais into politics, insisted his protege could "hold her head high." She resigned not because what she had done but because as minister she is responsible for her department, he said -- insisting she still has a future in politics.

Ms. Dionne-Marsolais remains the MNA for the Montreal-area riding of Rosemont, and could eventually be recalled to cabinet.

Her five-year career as a cabinet minister was marked by repeated trips to the hot seat, however.

Ms. Dionne-Marsolais, who has a master's degree in econometrics, had a successful business career before entering public life, and was a senior director in the Montreal office of accounting giant Price-Waterhouse. She also served as the Quebec government's delegate-general in New York.

After being elected in 1994, when then-PQ leader Jaques Parizeau became premier, she served briefly as tourism minister before gaining the culture portfolio. She resigned only two months later, however, after it was learned she appointed a friend to head the Tele-Quebec, a state television network.

She returned to cabinet as industry minister, but was forced to handle several controversial issues. In 1997, she fielded many of the questions over the so-called "Infogate" scandal, which arose when it was learned that a member of Mr. Bouchard's staff had obtained tax information on a Bloc Quebecois MP, Ghislain Lebel. The access commission launched a public inquiry, but concluded this year it could not complete the probe.

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