The Malta Independent 20 April 2021, Tuesday

TMIS Editorial: When politicians refuse to give a straight answer

Sunday, 29 November 2020, 11:15 Last update: about 6 months ago

When politicians are accused of accepting gifts but refuse to state, black on white, that they paid for those same gifts – in this week’s case a stay at the Hilton Evian-les-bains – they only reinforce the belief that they accepted freebies.

This week it was the turn of Joseph Muscat and Edward Zammit Lewis. They admitted to having stayed at a French resort owned by the Tumas Group – of which Yorgen Fenech was director until last year – but insist on playing with words when it comes to who paid for their stay.

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The former prime minister and the acting Justice Minister were quick to denounce reports about their stay, focusing mainly on a mistake about the year in which they holidayed at the Hilton (it was 2014, not 2017), and about the lease of a private jet they used to travel to an EU Summit in Brussels.

Yet they were not so forthcoming when it comes to who actually paid the hotel bill.

The pair said they had paid for the commercial flights to and from France, and that the use of a private jet for government business was normal practice. But they are still refusing to declare that they paid for their hotel rooms.

Joseph Muscat actually scoffed at the suggestion that he provides receipts to show that the paid for the hotel room, and Zammit Lewis had the temerity to tell one of our editors to “do your job” and ask PN MPs about their own links with the Tumas Group.

We say to the Justice Minister: “We are doing our job. We did our job when, a few weeks ago it emerged that PN MP Jason Azzopardi had also accepted a free stay at the Hilton Tel Aviv a few years back. We wrote not one, but two editorials about the subject. We chased up the Nationalist Party on how it would handle its MP and we reported about Azzopardi’s self-suspension and the investigation by the party’s ethics commission. We are also doing our job now that you have been embroiled in a similar scenario. We said that what Azzopardi did was wrong, but we have to act in the same manner with you and the former PM.”

When this newsroom received the information about the ‘2017’ stay some weeks back, we set out to verify these claims. This included sending questions to the French Financial Crimes Prosecutor, which is looking into all of Yorgen Fenech’s in-country assets, and we also sought comment from the Tumas Group.

The only ones with shortcomings here are Muscat and Zammit Lewis who, when pressed repeatedly by this newsroom and others to state whether they had paid the hotel bills, beat around the bush and gave unsatisfactory answers. They tried to play the victims, instead of owning up and giving clear answers. In his customary fashion, Muscat ignored questions sent by this newsroom, and Zammit Lewis lashed out at the editor who was asking him to be honest.

Speaking on TVM a couple of weeks back, before the Azzopardi story broke, Zammit Lewis categorically denied having ever received freebies from the Tumas Group. Now that this new story is out, he is refusing to give a black on white answer.

If he paid for the holiday out of pocket, he should just declare it. “Yes, I paid with my own money.” It’s super simple. His continued refusal to utter those words cannot but give the impression that he has something to hide, something he is ashamed to admit. This is understandable, as an admission that he received gifts could, in the current climate, lead to an unceremonious sacking by the Prime Minister.

Tumas Group Chairman Ray Fenech told this newsroom that the company was trying to establish how the accommodation was paid for – whether the bill was settled by one of the companies in the group, whether the duo had paid out of pocket or whether a third party did.

He warned, however, that the process could take some time, as the resort is currently shut down by orders of the French government due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The truth will eventually come out and, if Muscat and Zammit Lewis did not pay for their own stay at the Hilton, they should own up now.

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