The Malta Independent 4 August 2020, Tuesday

Petrus wine: Joseph Muscat in prima facie breach of code of ethics – Standards Commissioner

Albert Galea Friday, 3 July 2020, 14:36 Last update: about 1 month ago

Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was found to be prima facie in breach of the code of ethics when he received three bottles of expensive wine from Yorgen Fenech, the man who was later accused of complicity in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The report was compiled by Standards Commissioner George Hyzler on the request of independent candidate Arnold Cassola, and was published after the Parliamentary Committee for Standards in Public Life, which convened to discuss the report itself, voted unanimously to publish it in its entirety.

ADVERTISEMENT

Hyzler had been requested to investigate whether there had been a breach of ethics when it was reported that Muscat had received three bottles of Petrus - a premier Bordeaux red wine – costing about €5,800 in all.

The gifts had been presented to Muscat during a private party Muscat had organised as his official summer residence in Girgenti in February of last year. The following November, Fenech was arrested and later charged in connection with the journalist's murder.

Hyzler concluded in his 17-page report that the allegations constituted a prima facie breach of the code of ethics on five counts.

The breaches in the code of ethics which Hyzler listed in his conclusions are of points 4.7, wherein ministers should ensure that there is no conflict of interest between their public and personal interests; 4.8, wherein ministers should not accept any gifts or benefits which may give the impression that they are compromising their judgement; 5.7, wherein ministers should avoid conflicts of interest and should give full and correct information to Parliament, Cabinet and the general public; 5.9, wherein ministers should lead by example; and 8.4, wherein no minister should accept gifts, donations, hospitality, or services from someone which may make them obliged to them.

In his investigation Hyzler details how Muscat was allegedly gifted three bottles of wine at a birthday party worth just under €6,000 and how this was reported extensively by local media along with other reports of Muscat receiving gifts from Fenech. 

Hyzler in fact cites reports of a €20,000 Bvlgari watch as a gift, but notes that he cannot investigate this due to the prescription imposed onto him by Article 14 of the Standards for Public Life Act – which states that the Commissioner cannot investigate matters which happened before the Act was implemented.

Hyzler wrote that he had written to the Principal Permanent Secretary for a general criteria on how gifts are determined to be personal or to the state, and that he had also emailed Muscat for his reaction to the breaches which he felt may have occurred.

"Not only did I not breach any rule impose on the role of Prime Minister, but I acted with full responsibility" - Muscat

Attached to Hyzler's report is a letter which Muscat had written to the Standards Commissioner in response to the allegations against him. In this letter, Muscat told Hyzler that he was acting in accordance with his responsibilities as Prime Minister in the context of the investigations which were and still are ongoing into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

"Every step that I took in this regard, was taken under the guidance of and in full knowledge of the country's security service", Muscat wrote in his letter.

He said that this is true to the point that he had left the wine bottles at Girgenti Palace and not opened them.

He said that it is clear that there is no conflict of interest, and that his judgement was not compromised to the point that the decisions he took, a lot of which are in the public domain, resulted in substantial developments in the Caruana Galizia case.

"Not only did I not breach any rule impose on the role of Prime Minister, but I acted with full responsibility", he continued.

He said that what is being said about him and gifts, besides being incorrect, is being done in order for one of the parties in the case to build a narrative which they can use later in the judicial process, and noted that institutions should not be used to second such narratives.

Finally, Muscat criticised Hyzler for contacting the Principal Permanent Secretary with a separate set of questions to those which he later posed to the Office of the Prime Minister, noting that he had not been informed of any investigations taking place and that this in and of itself could prejudice any fair process.

Clarifying this matter in his report, Hyzler pointed out that the Commissioner is free to carry out any investigation he deems necessary, and that he has no obligation to inform the subject of an investigation that he is in fact being investigated.

Hyzler quashes Muscat’s defence

In his report, Hyzler quashed all three of the points which Muscat presented as his defence.

On the first, where Muscat said that he was following guidance from the Malta Security Service in inviting Fenech to the party and accepting the gifts, Hyzler notes Muscat indicated more than once that he had invited Fenech in order not to alarm him to him being a suspect in the Caruana Galizia murder.

However, here Hyzler points out that Muscat makes a very clear implication: that if Yorgen Fenech was not a person of interest in the investigation, then Muscat was “comfortable in inviting him to a private and restricted celebration and accept gifts from him, in spite of the fact that Mr. Fenech had close commercial relationships with the Government.”

The second point in Muscat’s defence, Hyzler said, was that he had not kept the gift and had left it to the state.

“However it is clear that the gift was of a personal nature and was not intended to be given to the state, this because of the circumstances in which it was given (a private celebration on the occasion of Dr. Muscat’s birthday) and because the three bottles had a personal meaning for the Prime Minister and not anyone else”, the report reads.

The latter part refers to the fact that one of the bottles was dated to 1974 – Muscat’s year of birth – and the other two were dated to 2007 – the year of birth of his twin daughters.

“Dr. Muscat accepted this gift as an individual, and not as the head of government, and as a result he became personally obliged to Yorgen Fenech”, Hyzler wrote.  The fact that Muscat did not keep the gift is, at best, irrelevant, Hyzler said.

On the final point of Muscat’s defence, that the gift did not compromise his judgement, Hyzler said that the code of ethics states that gifts should not be accepted even as they may create the impression that the person’s judgement is being compromised.

In reference, to this Hyzler cited scandals over the Electrogas power station, and related to the change in a local plan so that Fenech’s company could build high-rises in Mriehel, noting that these are mentioned to show how easy it is for suspicions that big businessmen have too much influence over the government to fester.

Hyzler also referred to accusations which Muscat had made when he was Opposition Leader, where he had criticised a Minister for flying on a private jet – ironically owned by the Fenech family – to watch a football match, and another occasion where a Minister had accepted a watch from someone with commercial relations to his ministry. 

Hyzler notes that that criticism back then was well-founded, because it is not ethically correct for a Minister to accept hospitality, gifts or services from a person with commercial interests with the government.

“That’s why, especially after that experience, the Prime Minister should have been much wiser when inviting Yorgen Fenech for a private and restricted celebration and accepted gifts from him”, Hyzler ends his report.

Report yet to be adopted by Parliament

The report is yet to be adopted by Parliament, with the Committee for Standards of Public Life meeting again to discuss the report later this month.

In terms of sanctions, any MP who is found guilty of a breach can face a range of sanctions, including having to make a written apology. The committee can also recommend that parliament take any other measure it may deem fit. 

When briefly discussing this in Friday's meeting, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis said that they classified the breach as one which was not of a grievous nature and which deserved no further sanction. PN MP Karol Aquilina though argued otherwise, saying that Hyzler had indicated that the breach was more serious than that.

 

The committee will reconvene on 22 July, when Hyzler himself is expected to be present to discuss the report with the members of the committee.

 

  • don't miss