The Malta Independent 7 December 2019, Saturday

Keith Schembri, dead man walking

Mark A. Sammut Wednesday, 13 November 2019, 09:44 Last update: about 23 days ago

Needless to say, this is a metaphor. But indeed, Keith Schembri is politically finished. And if his boss has any sense, he should realise this and fire him immediately. Ironically but not naïvely, Adrian Delia is giving the Prime Minister the best advice possible.

The timeline

On March 6, 2016, during a national protest against corruption, then-PN Leader Simon Busuttil publicly stated that Mr Schembri was involved in corruption. Mr Schembri reacted by taking Dr Busuttil to court for libel. The stunt had an effect on the electorate.

On October 16, 2017, Mr Schembri declared under oath that he had never received kickbacks.

On March 22, 2018, Mr Schembri challenged Dr Busuttil to face the “truth” in Court when he (Mr Schembri) would testify again. But on that day, Mr Schembri did not turn up in Court. And again on November 23, 2018, he did not turn up in Court.

One year later, on November 11, 2019, Mr Schembri did turn up in Court but instead of testifying, he withdrew the case he himself had lodged. This newspaper reported the crux of the matter thus:

“Schembri’s lawyer Pawlu Lia told the court that his client had been advised not to answer questions about facts under a magisterial inquiry on 17 Black. The court said that irrespective of what is said in inquiries, the questions would be admissable. If the questions are incriminating, the witness has a right not to answer them, said the magistrate. Schembri twice refused to answer the questions, with the court warning him it would take sanctions if he refuses to answer. He then proceeded to withdraw the defamation suit.”

Mr Schembri is involved in a magisterial inquiry on 17 Black. He tried using this involvement – about which further down – to avoid answering questions in a case he himself lodged!

Schembri’s untenable position

Clearly, however, Mr Schembri’s involvement in the magisterial inquiry makes his position untenable. This is not only the opinion of the Opposition and of a number of NGOs and individuals, but it is the normal practice in mature (and not-so-mature) democracies. In a functioning democracy, somebody in Mr Schembri’s predicament would simply leave or be chucked out.

Let’s have a look at precedents from the past 20 years, and the reasons for the resignations:

2001: Henry McLeish, First Minister of Scotland, over allegations of improper financial dealings.

2004: James McGreevey, Governor of New Jersey, after being mired in extortion scandals.

2005: Greg Sorbara, Finance Minister of Ontario, resigned while under investigation.

David Blunkett, British Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, resigned after breaking the Ministerial Code regarding private business appointments.

2006: Laila Freivalds, Swedish foreign minister, in response to a number of scandals.

2008: Peter Hain, British Work and Pensions and Wales Secretary, after the Electoral Commission referred investigations over political funding to the Police.

Eliot Spitzer, Governor of New York, over claims of involvement in a prostitution ring.

2010: David Laws, UK Chief Secretary to the Treasury, forced to resign over expenses abuse allegations, after it emerged he had channelled tens of thousands of pounds in public money to his long-time partner.

2012: Pál Schmitt, President of Hungary, in a plagiarism scandal.

David Petraeus, Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, for an extramarital affair.

Michael Palmer, resigned as Singapore's Speaker of Parliament for an extramarital affair.

2013: Annette Schavan, Education Minister of Germany, after her doctorate was revoked for plagiarism.

2016: Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, resigned as Prime Minister of Iceland due to the Panama Papers scandal.

2017: Robert J. Bentley, resigned as Governor of Alabama due to his involvement in a sex scandal with his political aide Rebekah Mason.

Raúl Fernando Sendic Rodríguez, resigned as Vice-President of Uruguay at the conclusion of an investigation regarding his use of public funds while President of a State-owned company.

Michael Fallon resigned as UK Secretary of State for Defence after allegations of harassment.

Priti Patel, forced to resign as UK Secretary of State for International Development after undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials on holiday in the country.

2018:  Robert Fico, resigned as Prime Minister of Slovakia in the wake of mass demonstrations against his governing coalition following the murder Ján Kuciak, a journalist who was investigating possible ties between government officials and an Italian organized crime syndicate at the time he and his fiancée were gunned down in their home.

Amber Rudd, resigned as UK Secretary of State for the Home Department following misleading Parliament in the aftermath of the Windrush scandal.

2019: Ricardo Antonio Rosselló Nevares resigned as Governor of Puerto Rico as important members of his cabinet are currently accused on corruption charges for more than $15 million.

Ramush Haradinaj resigned as Prime Minister of Kosovo after being summoned by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office to be interviewed as a suspect.

Evo Morales resigned as President of Bolivia on 10 November after an OAS audit revealed irregularities in the 2019 Bolivian general election.

From the above, it is clear that the accepted practice in functioning democracies is that people in situations that are similar to Keith Schembri’s either resign out of their own accord or are forced to resign.

That the Prime Minister keeps sheltering Mr Schembri says a lot about two things.

One, the undeniable meltdown of the country’s political institutions – as the PN has been rightly pointing out for quite some time now. (The problem is that political education is somewhat lacking in this country, so the PN is speaking a language only the few can understand. For the many, it is a foreign language.)

Two, that Mr Schembri has a lot to hide and that, by implication, so does the Prime Minister. Even if it were merely the shadow of a doubt, in a functioning democracy this would be enough to make politicians and their aides, resign. We really have a constitutional crisis on our hands. The President of the Republic should find residual powers and act.

Now.

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