Sparks and calls for political responsibility are flying fast and furious over the smart meter electricity racket scandal made public by the government earlier this week, with both the government and Opposition calling on each other to assume political responsibility for the scam which, according to the government, accounted for some 10 per cent of all the electricity generated by Enemalta in 2012 – costing the taxpayer some €30 million in that year alone.
Former energy minister Tonio Fenech has categorically denied charges levelled against him yesterday morning by current energy minister Konrad Mizzi to the effect that he had known about the electricity theft racket when in office but had failed to take any action.
In reply to Dr Mizzi’s accusation made on the Sibt il-Punt One Radio show yesterday morning, Mr Fenech insisted that he had had no knowledge of the racket which has dominated the headlines over recent days. He put the minister’s accusation down to “panic” over the fact that the person who had been appointed by Dr Mizzi as a liaison officer between Enemalta and his Ministry is being investigated for his involvement in the racket.
Speaking in a radio interview yesterday, Dr Mizzi insisted that former minister Tonio Fenech had been aware of the ongoing electricity theft at Enemalta and as such he “should shoulder the responsibility”.
He added that Mr Fenech, as energy minister in the last administration, “was aware of the large-scale energy theft but had failed to take action. Those who are behind this scam must pay. However, who will carry the political responsibility?”
In reply, Mr Fenech said that “Minister Mizzi is blatantly lying to escape political liability.”
He added that he will be filing a libel case against Dr Mizzi. This will be the second libel case filed in relation to the case, after Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi filed a libel case against the opposition-owned Media.Link Communications following a front page article that was published in Friday’s edition of the In-Nazzjon newspaper, which linked Dr Mizzi to the implicated liaison officer, Louis Attard.
Contacted yesterday, Mr Fenech confirmed that during his tenure Enemalta had become aware of certain potential defects with the smart meters.
He commented: “We had a suspicion that there was a way in which they could be tampered with to slow down the recording of consumption. This, however, does not mean that I knew that there was an actual racket in progress. These are two completely different matters altogether.
“Suspecting there could be a potential problem and knowing of a racket are completely separate issues,” he said.
“Had I had even an inkling that this was happening, I would have called in the police immediately. If anyone has to take political responsibility it should be the minister, who placed a person who is now being investigated for the electricity thefts in a position of trust as his ‘voice’ inside Enemalta in a position of trust.”
Mr Fenech said that Mr Attard was appointed as the “minister’s voice inside Enemalta” and had been given a promotion and an allowance increase without a call for applications. “Dr Mizzi is responsible for appointing Mr Attard, who is one of the employees expected to be arraigned over the theft of energy,” Mr Fenech pointed out.
Earlier this week, Dr Mizzi had convened a press conference to announce that a number of Enemalta employees had been suspended after a Theft Control Unit set up within Enemalta found that at least 1,000 smart meters had been tampered with so as to enable them to record lower electricity consumption levels.
According to reports, those running the racket had charged €1,200 per residential smart meter, with charges for tampering with smart meters in commercial establishments much higher.
Dr Mizzi had said that the scam had amounted to some 10 per cent of the total generation of electricity by Enemalta, costing taxpayers around €30 million in 2012 alone.
Mr Fenech yesterday called on Dr Mizzi to assume political responsibility over the scandal in the light of claims by the Opposition media that the individual he appointed as his liaison was “trusted by him and close to him”.
“Minister Mizzi’s statement [made during his radio interview yesterday] shows how he is trying to hide the fact that a person close to him is being investigated in this case has propelled him into a state of panic,” Mr Fenech said yesterday.
In another statement yesterday, the Labour Party hit out at Mr Fenech and the Opposition, saying: “The Nationalist Party knows full well about the electricity theft racket because it started under its administration and was stopped by the Labour government,” an accusation that Mr Fenech flatly denies.
“This”, the Labour Party said, “is the difference between the two political parties”, and it called on Opposition leader Simon Busuttil to explain why the PN in government had not taken action over the scandal when it knew it was happening.
Quick court action against Enemalta employees
On Friday, 55-year-old former Enemalta technician Paul Pantalleresco from Mqabba was jailed for two years by Magistrate Francesco Depasquale after pleading guilty to helping tamper with smart meters. In addition to the two years’ imprisonment, he was also placed under a perpetual interdiction.
Lawyer Arthur Azzopardi said that his client had cooperated with the police and as such he should be given the minimum sentence at law. He also said that Mr Pantalleresco had not rigged all the 1,000 smart metres believed to have been involved, but a much smaller number.
Prosecuting Inspectors Daniel Zammit and Roderick Zammit who arraigned the three accused on Friday told the court that each of them was responsible for having tampered with 250 meters.
Meanwhile, 35-year-old Emmanuel Micallef from Mtarfa, who works as a distribution tradesman at Enemalta, pleaded not guilty to electricity theft from the state corporation and requested bail. The magistrate, however, stated that it was not “opportune” for bail to be granted at this stage and remanded him in custody.
The prosecution also told the court that, while the tampered smart meters have been identified, the account holders of the 1,000 smart meters have not yet been spoken to by the police or Enemalta.
They said that the verification process is still underway. A small number of meters have been replaced. The prosecution argued that account holders could be “potential witnesses” and that as such it was premature to grant bail.
Appearing for Mr Micallef, lawyer Joe Giglio argued that bail should be granted: “While I understand that police have yet to speak to the account holders, my argument is that if the consumers identify the accused as the man who installed their meter, it makes the consumer an accomplice, which would make him an unreliable witness against the accused.”
Dr Giglio said that, legally speaking, the consumers being described as “witnesses” will be appearing as co-accused, giving them the right not to testify in order not to incriminate themselves. The bail request was denied.
Meanwhile, 47-year-old former Enemalta employee Richard Gauci of Rabat pleaded not guilty to the same charges. Bail was denied, with the prosecution stating that he and Emmanuel Micallef could tamper with evidence if are granted bail.
Having suffered a stroke a few months ago, Mr Gauci limped into the courtroom resting on a walking stick. The magistrate urged the prison’s director to ensure that the accused receives the required medical attention. Lawyer Dominic Micallef appeared for Mr Gauci.
More arraignments in connection with the case are expected in the coming days.