The Malta Independent 15 October 2021, Friday

TMID Editorial: Conflict of interest - It’s staring you right in the face

Friday, 17 September 2021, 07:58 Last update: about 28 days ago

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis has for the past two months been resisting calls for his resignation.

The opposition, civil society groups, and the media have been calling for the minister’s resignation after it emerged that he had a cosy relationship with Yorgen Fenech – the owner of 17 Black who is charged with masterminding the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The minister also finds himself in an awkward position as one of two government MPs sitting on Parliament’s Standards Committee. For two reasons. Firstly, because given his relationship with Fenech (who is involved in other scandals, besides Daphne’s murder), he is hardly the best person to be discussing ethics by MPs and Cabinet members. Secondly, because the committee is currently discussing an investigation, by the Standards Commissioner, into a breach of ethics by former junior minister Rosianne Cutajar. The investigation revolves around Cutajar’s alleged role in brokering a property deal for Yorgen Fenech. She is also accused of taking €9,000 cash gift from the former Tumas magnate.

When this newsroom approached Zammit Lewis about these matters on Wednesday, the minister stated in an arrogant tone that he would not resign, and that he did not have to be told what to do. “If there is any kind of conflict of interest, I know what I have to do, and certainly nor you or anyone else will tell me what needs to be done,” he told our reporter.

The truth is, the minister’s conflict of interest is clear for everyone to see. But let us break it down for him in more simple terms.

As a member of the standards committee, he is discussing an investigation into one of his fellow MPs who, until recently, sat beside him in Cabinet meetings.

Cutajar was allegedly acting as a broker for his friend, who was trying to acquire a €1.3m property in Mdina.

Furthermore, she is being investigated for allegedly taking a €9,000 gift from Fenech.

So how can he say that there is no conflict of interest?

And why the insistence to stay on? Why is it so difficult for Zammit Lewis to recuse himself from this particular case and be replaced by a Labour colleague?

In his comments to the media, Zammit Lewis also tried to justify his refusal to resign by pointing out to the reforms he has passed as Justice Minister. He even used EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s praise of the rule of law reforms as an excuse.

But, while the reforms are to be acknowledged and lauded, they do not undo the current situation. The fact remains that, a sitting minister, the justice minister no less, was very good buddies with the person accused of masterminding the murder of a journalist and who owned a secret company set up to receive kickbacks from corrupt deals. In civilised countries, this would be enough for a resignation.

But even if he doesn’t resign, even if Robert Abela does not kick him out, Zammit Lewis certainly has no place on the standards committee. He certainly has no place in a discussion involving another minister who breached ethics, and his friend Yorgen Fenech.

He told our journalist that he does not need anyone to tell him if there’s a conflict of interest, that he can see one on his own.

Well, the minister must be blind, because this clear case of conflict of interest is staring him in the face.

 

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