The Malta Independent 21 February 2019, Thursday

Updated (4): Fisheries director suspended on claims she demanded payment from Spanish tuna kingpin

Tuesday, 12 February 2019, 10:33 Last update: about 8 days ago
Andreina Fenech Farrugia
Andreina Fenech Farrugia

The director of Malta’s fisheries department, Andreina Fenech Farrugia, has been suspended following allegations that she demanded money from a major Spanish tuna operator.

Environment Minister Jose Herrera has confirmed that he had suspended the official after Spanish news outlet El Confidential published leaked phone intercepts by the Spanish authorities allegedly showing how Farrugia asked Spanish bluefin tuna kingpin José Fuentes García for payment.

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Herrera said Fenech Farrugia would be replaced by an acting head, with reports saying that the director would be replaced later today. A magisterial inquiry has been launched. 

In Parliament, Fisheries Parliamentary Secretary Clint Camilleri pledged Malta's full collaboration in the investigations. He said that in the best interest of Malta's fisheries sector, government will be collaborating fully with the relevant authorities.

In a statement, Fenech Farrugia "categorically" denied any wrongdoing and said she was strongly rebutting the allegations in her regard.  

In the transcripts published by El Confidencial, Fenech Farrugia tells Fuentes: “I am in Bulgaria just for you. You have to pay me, because I have a meeting with the [director] general of Brussels”.

According to the documents, the conversation took place on 20 June 2018. At the time, EU fisheries heads were meeting under the auspices of Bulgaria’s EU Council presidency.

José Fuentes García is the vice president of the Ricardo Fuentes e Hijos Group, whose headquarters is in Cartagena. It was founded in 1984 by his father, Francisco Fuentes. The Fuentes Group is made up today of more than 40 companies in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Croatia, Malta, Morocco and Tunisia.

The holding is dedicated to real estate investments, but the group’s main activity is the fishing of tuna in the high seas with purse seiners, its transfer to fattening farms and subsequent national and international commercialization.

It also captures tuna in Cádiz, Portugal, Italy and Morocco, and is the world's largest operator of Atlantic bluefin tuna, according to El Confidencial.

The group owns two Maltese companies – RF Malta Holding and Mare Blu Tuna Farm Ltd. The latter is dedicated to the fattening of bluefin tuna south of Malta.

The company uses fishing vessels with French, Libyan, Tunisian and Algerian flags to fill their cages in Malta, the Spanish news outlet. “Rumours among activists, senior European officials and businessmen had always pointed to the archipelago as a place to launder tuna fish fraudulently,” the report reads.

Spanish authorities launched a massive operation into suspicions that Malta helped the Fuentes Group import undeclared tuna, bypassing quota restrictions. It is believed that the illegal trade reached up to €25 million.

79 people have been arrested so far in Spain. The brothers José and Juan Pedro Fuentes García, both shareholders of the holding company of the Grupo Fuentes companies, and two of its directors were detained during the Spanish Ucoma operation. All of them are on provisional release.

El Confidencial speaks about irregularities in Mare Blu’s audited accounts. In 2016, the company had a turnover of €54 million and registered a profit of €4.7 million. The following year it had revenue of €56.6 million but reported losses of €7.5 million.

While the company was authoritised to have cages for up to 3,000 tuna in Malta, it actually had the capacity for 9,000.

El Confidencial said documents show that Farrugia and Fuentes collaborated “for years”, allowing the Fuentes Group to introduce more tuna than declared at the Malta farms. Once the documentation was fixed, the tuna would be exported to countries like Japan, the United States or Spain. “Thanks to his ability to influence the ministry, Fenech Ferrugia would have taken bribes,” El Confidencial reports.

Fenech Farrugia, in her conversations with Fuentes García, always used a telephone with a Spanish number when speaking to Fuentes. The report says the documents also show Farrugia, known to the directors as ‘La Jefa’ (the boss), setting up a meeting with Fuentes at the Hilton Hotel, on 25 June.

When contacted by the Spanish newspaper, Fenech Farrugia asked for questions to be sent by email, but she never replied to the written questions. Jose Fuentes also refused to comment, El Confidencial says.

During Parliamentary Question Time, Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries Clint Camilleri turned the tables on Opposition MPs, asking them to state why Fenech Farrugia was removed from her post back in 2010.

Camilleri said that there is no documentation which says why she was transferred from her fisheries director past back then to the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority with the same exact package.

The Parliamentary Secretary said that magisterial inquiries were already in place to investigate, responding to doubts as to whether she would have been suspended had the transcripts not been leaked. He said that government is already talking with the European Commission to ensure local fishermen do not suffer because of the revelations.

Environment Minister Jose Herrera said that an immediate suspension seemed like the correct action.


 

 

Government statement

In a statement, the Environment Ministry said: “In light of the facts presented before the Spanish authorities, the Government is indefinitely suspending the Director General of Aquaculture and Fisheries. As has always been done by this Government, it is collaborating with the authorities in all ongoing investigations to establish all the facts of this case, even in the best interest of the fisheries and aquaculture sector.”

The Maltese Police involved Europol in the investigations to receive information from Spain on investigations conducted on a Spanish tuna company operating from Malta, the government said.

“Meanwhile other investigations by the Malta Police Force are continuing and a Magisterial inquiry led by Magistrate Gabriella Vella is even ongoing,” the ministry said. 

 

Fenech Farrugia denial

"I would like to categorically deny any wrongdoing on my part and I strongly rebut the allegations in my regard," Andreina Fenech Farrugia said in a statement. "Moreover, I would like to declare that I have always observed and employed the highest standards of diligence and professionalism in my work and this is documented at the relevant competent authorities and I always took the necessary legal steps against all operators, at all times, when any illegalities were detected. Once again I categorically deny any wrong doing on my part and strongly rebut the allegations in my regard."

 

FMAP reaction

The Malta Aquaculture Federation (FMAP) welcomed the steps taken by the government to “repair the damage done to the industry.”

FMAP CEO Charlon Gouder said he was concerned by what was being reported.

While one should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, immediate steps must be taken to restore the industry’s reputation, he said. 

Gouder appealed for all evidence to be preserved and said the federation would continue to monitor the situation closely.

 

PN representative's position

Asked in a press conference for his reaction to this news, PN MP Jason Azzopardi made two observations, noting firstly that the person in question had been removed from her post in 2010 by then Environment Minister George Pullicino, but had been reinstated in 2013 by the newly-elected Labour government. 

He also noted however that the situation had belied Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's hypocrisy.  He said that Fenech Farrugia had been suspended by the government immediately based on an allegation in a foreign paper - which was the proper course of action.  

However, he noted, in the case of Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi - whom he described as "corrupt", saying that he could do so now that the libel cases against him had been withdrawn - the Prime Minister had justified not suspending them by saying that what was said on them were merely allegations and were unproven.

This case is proof that Muscat works with a system of "two weights, two measures", Azzopardi said.


 

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