12/01/2011 04:54 EST | Updated 01/31/2012 05:12 EST

Quebec Day Care Corruption Probe Looking For Potential Irregularities

MONTREAL - Quebec's $7-a-day public daycare program, considered a landmark piece of legislation in the province and a potential model for the rest of the country, is being probed for possible corruption.

The province's new anti-corruption body issued a statement Thursday saying it plans to examine the program.

The announcement comes after the province's auditor general reported irregularities in the awarding of contracts for 18,000 subsidized daycare spaces.

So an investigative body created to examine scams in the province's scandal-plagued construction industry is now turning its magnifying glass onto those responsible for cookies and naptime.

"The integrity of the public system is at the heart of my mandate as anti-corruption commissioner," unit boss Robert Lafreniere said in Thursday's statement.

"The auditor general's findings are troubling enough that I'm asking my team to gather and analyze pertinent information to determine whether there's enough to investigate under the (province's) anti-corruption law."

The public daycare program created a decade ago by the previous Parti Quebecois government is a source of pride to many policy-makers in the province.

It inspired an ill-fated attempt by Paul Martin's federal Liberals to create a similar system across Canada several years ago.

The logic behind it was simple: lower the cost of daycare so all children have access to quality education from early on, while eliminating a barrier for parents hoping to enter the job market.

But for years there have been complaints about the long wait times, lack of available spots and the notion that spaces were being gobbled up by families with the means to pay for child care.

In recent months, the program has become a source of increasing controversy.

The man once responsible for administering the system, ex-cabinet minister Tony Tomassi, has been slapped with unrelated fraud charges.

Tomassi had, in the weeks before his forced resignation from cabinet, also been accused of cronyism in the awarding of contracts.

The opposition had been raising alarm bells about lucrative daycare contracts going to Liberal party donors.

The system provides daycare operators with $35 to $52 per child per day, while parents kick in $7 per day. Some of those contracts went to people with no demonstrable history of working with children — but with a history of donating to the governing party, the opposition said.

Tomassi was later forced to resign amid unrelated allegations that he used a personal credit card supplied by a private company that received government business.

But it was this week's auditor general's report about the performance of the program under Tomassi's predecessor, Michele Courchesne, in 2008 that triggered the involvement of the anti-corruption unit.

The report cited irregularities at every step, from ignoring bureaucrats' advice about who should get contracts to the awarding of spots to the wrong places.

Some areas that had enough daycare spaces got more, while others lacking spaces didn't get any new ones.

The leader of a popular new political party demanded that the premier explain why bureaucrats' advice was overruled.

"Mr. Charest needs to tell us: Is he the person who demanded those changes?" said Francois Legault, the leader of the Coalition For Quebec's Future, which has been leading recent polls.