The Malta Independent 16 October 2018, Tuesday

Smart meter scandal: Is government bluffing?

Malta Independent Wednesday, 19 February 2014, 09:30 Last update: about 5 years ago

The government is insisting that it knows the identity of the 1,000-odd people who bribed Enemalta officials to rig their smart meters. But given its course of action against them, this only raises further questions. John Cordina writes

 

The government’s decision to provide the “consumers” who illicitly cut down on their electricity bill with the option to regularise their position and avoid criminal proceedings has proven to be controversial.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced on Sunday that the government did not want to engage in a “witch-hunt” against these consumers, even though they could theoretically face up to 8.5 years’ imprisonment for bribery and fraud. Enemalta followed suit the next day, asking those who defrauded it out of millions to contact it and “regularise their position voluntarily,” avoiding criminal proceedings and publicity in the process.

The polite and gentle wording by Enemalta is somewhat inexplicable, suggesting that the corporation actually lacked the ability to actually identify these offenders. After all, the company could have sent sternly-worded legal letters to offenders it knew about, as its bills handler ARMS Ltd often did when it chased unpaid bills.

However, any suggestions that offenders could not be identified were quashed at a news conference yesterday afternoon, with Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi clearly explaining how this was done, through analyses and inspections.

But the confirmation that the names of the “consumers” are in hand only raises further questions.

Criminal proceedings have already been launched against the Enemalta employees believed to be involved, with a former technician ending up jailed for two years after filing a guilty plea.

But while those who paid for the tampered meters can easily be charged with bribing public officials and with either theft or misappropriation, the government has opted to act on the basis of a 2006 legal notice permitting Enemalta chairmen to waive criminal proceedings for consumer theft.

Of course, this legal notice does not rule out criminal proceedings, and one wonders whether such a course of action is in sync with a government claiming to be tough on corruption. That said, however, there are two main issues which would need to be taken into consideration.

The first is of a legal nature: prosecuting those whose smart meters are rigged may not be as straightforward as it seems.

The smart meter by itself is not sufficient proof that the person concerned has engaged in fraud and bribery; for instance, the smart meter may have been tampered without the customer’s knowledge. An unlikely scenario, perhaps, but the burden of proof is on the prosecution.

The second issue is somewhat more obvious: the logistical implications of prosecuting – and possibly jailing – 1,000 people in a country which only hosts one prison designed to accommodate 550 people and which hosts some 600, along with detention centres which are reserved for asylum seekers.

Technically speaking, offenders may be spared jail since the minimum jail term applicable for theft and bribery combined is lower than two years, making suspended jail terms a possibility.

However, that could still result in the law courts having to process cases against 1,000 people, a logistical nightmare in a legal system which is already plagued with excessive delays in court proceedings.

But if logistical reasons are all that prevents the authorities from prosecuting the corrupt, another question still remains, given Dr Mizzi’s confirmation that the identity of the offenders is known to Enemalta.

After all, there are no logistical nightmares involved in naming and shaming those who are guilty of such a serious crime.

Whose reputation is being safeguarded?

One can argue that the public has a right to know who the offenders are, as happens with others who are convicted of theft, fraud or bribery. This belief is shared by the Nationalist Party, as was pointed out by MP George Pullicino at a news conference.

The secrecy can only fuel speculation that the list includes a number of individuals who are prominent, either through their business interests or through their political connections.

After all, only those whose electricity consumption is significant are likely to pay bribes estimated to be in the region of €1,500.

And since the electricity theft is estimated to amount to some €30 million a year, it is practically certain that the list includes a number of sizeable commercial operations, unless far more than 1,000 smart meters were tampered with.

So consumers will also be unable to find out if the shops and commercial establishments that they patronise have been involved in corrupt practices – and neither will honest businesses find out if others enjoyed an unfair and illicit competitive advantage.

In the absence of names, all that we are left with is the knowledge that Malta harbours an enormous proportion of people who have been involved in corruption. For comparison’s sake, one can point out that the number of people involved in the racket is roughly equal to the number of people charged with public corruption in the US – a country with over 300 million inhabitants – in any given year.

By failing to name and shame the ones directly involved in the crime, therefore, one can argue that the rest of us are shamed instead, by association.

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