The Malta Independent 19 June 2021, Saturday

Speaker urges Hyzler to expedite investigations involving suspended ministers

Monday, 17 May 2021, 19:07 Last update: about 2 months ago

Speaker Anglu Farrugia has urged Standards Commissioner George Hyzler to try and expedite investigations involving Cabinet members who are under suspension, like Parliamentary Secretary Rosianne Cutajar.

The suggestion was made during a meeting of the House Business Committee, which debated the financial estimates of the Office of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life.

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Farrugia said that, in such cases, it is in everyone’s interest that investigations are concluded as swiftly as possible. Cutajar recently suspended herself over allegations of impropriety involving 17 Black owner and suspected Daphne murder mastermind Yorgen Fenech.

But Hyzler explained that he has other investigations to conclude first, and that his office is handling a heavy caseload.

Hyzler said that, over the past two and a half years, he concluded investigations into 94 complaints. 68 have been decided, with wrongdoing found in 12 cases. Eight of these have been resolved, while four were referred to Parliament’s ethics committee. Responsibility was accepted in three cases, while there was no agreement on the fourth.

Speaking at the start of the debate, Hyzler said that whoever occupies his role will be subject to criticism. He said, however, that MPs cannot defend their behaviour by saying that similar things used to happen in the past.

Reacting to comments that his role should not be occupied by a former MP, Hyzler said that as a former minister, he has political insight.

“I want to be the voice of common sense. I do not want to provoke senseless controversies, but I also cannot remain silent in the face of certain actions.”

He said that, apart from investigating complaints, he has also issued a number of recommendations and guidelines.

Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne said he hoped that the position is not used as a political tool by MPs to attack fellow Parliamentarians. If there is even the slightest perception of this, the Commissioner’s standing would suffer, he said. He augured that the Commissioner would always act impartially and only investigate cases that merit to be looked into.

“The Commissioner should not feel that he is above the law. He should not take it badly when he is criticised by MPs. I feel you were overly sensitive that you had to mention the criticism levelled against you in your annual report,” Fearne said, while also acknowledging that bringing about a culture of change is difficult.

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis said he agrees with the role, but the Commissioner should not investigate everything.

“Some people see something on Facebook and promptly ask for an investigation but are then they are unable to come as witnesses. There has to be more balance. Even in the criminal code we have the crime of calumny, where you cannot report someone when there is no sound basis to do so.”  

He said he believes the Commissioner’s reports should be published but said that it is not right that some of the reports are leaked to the media before they reach the ethics committee.

Labour Whip Glenn Bedingfield said the office is needed to enforce the regulations, but these should apply to everyone. He also insisted that the Standards Commissioner should not be a former MP. Furthermore, the Commissioner should be a Parliamentary official, falling under the Speaker, like the Ombudsman and the Auditor General.

PN MP Joe Ellis said the institution should not be undermined. There is no one better than a former MP for this role, he added. PN MP David Agius thanked Hyzler for his work, adding a ‘referee’ will always be criticised.

The Speaker criticised Hyzler for having entered into a “public debate” with him over a ruling he had given.

Recently, Farrugia had ruled that Hyzler should not have investigated a complaint on the lock-up of journalists at Castille in 2019 because the case was also being investigated by the courts. Hyzler had found the Office of the Prime Minister to be in breach of ethics over the incident.

“When you enter into a public debate with me you are belittling your office,” Farrugia said, adding that Hyzler could always have met him to discuss the matter privately.

Hyzler said he disagreed with the Speaker’s ruling.

He added that he has a duty to protect his office. “You chose someone who has no political interests. As an MP I would make an effort to be in the press, today I have no interest in doing so.”

He added that he had rejected 38 complaints because they did not merit an investigation.

The Commissioner added that reports where wrongdoing is found are not published as per an agreement he has with the ethics committee. He suggested, however, that one might discuss whether these reports should be published with the names redacted.

He also opined that parliamentary privilege should stay. “MPs should have the liberty to speak freely, without fear. But there should be some scrutiny on third parties who are damaged by allegations that can be made in Parliament.”

Regarding the length of investigations, Hyzler remarked that his office is dealing with a huge caseload. While he is trying to keep a lean organisation and is being very careful on spending, his office needs two other employees, he said.

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