The Malta Independent 9 August 2020, Sunday

TMID Editorial: Petrus wine - Muscat’s arguments do not hold water

Monday, 6 July 2020, 08:58 Last update: about 2 months ago

Joseph Muscat has disagreed with the conclusions of a report by Standards Commissioner George Hyzler, who found that Muscat breached ethics when he accepted three expensive bottles of wine from 17 Black-owner Yorgen Fenech, but arguments brought forward by the former PM do not hold water.

The expensive gift was given to Muscat at a party the then PM had held at Girgenti Palace in February 2019.

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Muscat said he invited Fenech and accepted the gifts on the advice of the Malta Security Service, so as to not to alarm Fenech that he was a suspect in the investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

This makes no sense. Muscat could have easily told Fenech that he, as Prime Minister, could not accept gifts, especially such a lavish one, because the code of ethics prohibits it. This would not have alerted Fenech to anything except to the realisation that he was dealing with a PM who followed the rules.

Well, it would have worked if Muscat had not already accepted gifts from Fenech in the past, including an expensive Bvlgari watch.

Another point we have to raise is that, while Fenech was, at the time, unaware he was being investigated in connection to the murder, the news that he was the owner of 17 Black – a company flagged in FIAU reports and which had links to Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi – was well known. The revelation, in fact, had been made months before and had been widely publicised.

On this fact alone, Fenech should never have been invited to that party.

Muscat also argued that he did not breach ethics because he did not keep the gifts for himself, but they went to the state. There are two arguments to be made here.

First of all, Fenech would not have known that the gifts would go to the state because, presumably he was not told this fact. As far as he was concerned, the gift was offered and accepted.

Secondly, this is irrelevant. Even if Fenech knew that Muscat would not take the wine home,

the fact of the matter remains that the gift was given and received. Once that happened, the person giving the gift could consider himself owed favours by the Prime Minister. This is not just about whether politicians act favourably towards those who gift them, but also about the perception on the other: if someone gives you a gift and you accept it, that person may feel that you are obliged to him. If you just tell him ‘thanks, but the rules forbid it,’ there is no sense of obligation.

Muscat also unashamedly drew comparisons to past Nationalist administrations, when he was the person who told us over and over again that things would be done differently under his watch, that politicians would be held to account. We cannot keep going back 25 years to justify present wrongdoings.

The revelations about the Petrus wine and the Bvlgari watch (which was given and received under very different circumstances, not under the directions of the MSS), show just how cosy the relationship between businesspeople and politicians can be.

It was reported on Sunday that Fenech was also in contact with Opposition Leader Adrian Delia well after the 17 Black ownership was revealed (but that is the subject for another editorial).

Sadly, we have become accustomed to a system where politicians claim they are never wrong; they never make mistakes. And they justify their wrongdoings by saying ‘the other side did it too.’

Muscat said in a Facebook post that the role of Commissioner for Standards in Public Life was created by his administration and on this he is right. But the first time he was criticised by the Commissioner, Muscat said he disagrees. Of course, he is entitled to his opinion and he can appeal Hyzler’s report, but the fact remains that he is trying to justify an ethics breach with excuses that do not make sense.

 

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