The Malta Independent 13 August 2022, Saturday

18 politicians in breach of ethics over improper use of public funds on ads in Labour newspaper

Shona Berger Monday, 27 June 2022, 16:49 Last update: about 3 months ago

18 ministers, former ministers and former Parliamentary Secretaries have been found in breach of ethics by Standards Commissioner George Hyzler for making improper use of public funds to pay for advertisements of a political nature in a supplement on Labour’s Sunday newspaper Kulħadd. 

The Standards in Public Life Committee, tasked with monitoring ethical breaches, agreed to publish the report on Monday. 

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During the parliamentary standards committee meeting on Monday, the members discussed the report brought forward to the Speaker in order to decide whether or not the report will be published in the first sitting.

MP Ryan Callus argued that for reasons of scrutiny and transparency, the report should be published to allow the public to know what’s going on. The other members agreed.  

According to the conclusion of Hyzler’s report, the eighteen ministers, former ministers, former parliamentary secretaries mentioned in the report have violated Articles 4.9, 4.10, 5.3 and 7.4 of the code of ministerial ethics through the official advertisements they published in the supplement to the newspaper Kulħadd on 16 January 2022.  

The eighteen politicians involved in this case, are Ministers Chris Fearne, Roderick Galdes, Aaron Farrugia, Michael Falzon, Clint Camilleri, Silvio Schembri, Anton Refalo, Ian Borg, Carmelo Abela, Clifton Grima, Byron Camilleri, Julia Farrugia Portelli, Owen Bonnici, Edward Zammit Lewis, Michael Farrugia, Chris Agius, Josè Herrera, and Miriam Dalli.  

Based on the evidence gathered through the investigation, Hyzler deduced that Kulħadd had every right to issue a supplement of this nature, but the ministers concerned should not have spent public funds to support the supplement as it actually happened. 

“This expenditure, amounting to a total of €16,700, represents a lack of separation between the role of minister and member of a political party (Art. 4.9) and misuse of public funds (Art. 5.3). 

It also represents a breach of the principle of impartiality of the public service (Art 4.10 and 7.4) because expenditure by ministries is approved by senior officials in the public service, who were then placed in a situation where they had to approve expenditure of public funds for politicians,” the report said. 

Hyzler said that in the case of Ministers Aaron Farrugia and Julia Farrugia Portelli, this behaviour is mitigated by the fact that they did not include their own photos in the advertisements commissioned by them. The same goes for Ministers Byron Camilleri, Clint Camilleri, Miriam Dalli and Anton Refalo, as well as former Minister Carmelo Abela, who did not have a prominent photo. 

Meanwhile, Hyzer also concluded that this behaviour is exacerbated in the case of Minister Ian Borg, and in particular former Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and former Parliamentary Secretary Chris Agius, due to the partisan nature of their advertisements. 

“I recognise that the practice of using public funds to publicize ministers has existed under different governments. However, as I have said several times, the purpose of my office is to contribute to a change in culture and to raising standards in public life. 

It would not be compatible with this aim if bad practices were excused and perpetuated on the pretext that they had been in place for a long time. It was therefore, encouraging that by the time the present case arose, the guidelines I had issued were being followed by the ministers. It is equally disappointing that the guidelines were not followed in the present case,” Hyzler said. 

The report was forwarded to the Committee on Standards in Public Life for any action it deems appropriate as this is for the Committee to decide. Consequently, the Committee decided to publish the report in the interests of transparency. 

This is the first meeting that the parliamentary standards committee has held following the general election in March 2022. 

The committee is currently chaired by Speaker Anglu Farrugia and two members each from the government and the opposition. These are PL MP Jonathan Attard, PL MP Andy Ellul, PN MP Ryan Callus and PN MP Mark Anthony Sammut. 

Following the committee’s agreement to publish the report, the committee will need to deliberate, by thoroughly going through each aspect of the report. This will be done by first asking the Commissioner to present the report. 

This presentation is expected to be done on Thursday 30 June at 14:00pm.

 

New 'record' on governance - Repubblika

Reacting, civil society NGO Repubblika said the government had broken another “record of good governance.”

It noted that, after a previous Hyzler report investigated over a complaint it had filed, the Commissioner had found minister Carmelo Abela in breach of ethics over an advertisement. Back then, Edward Zammit Lewis had defended him. The Commissioner then issued guidelines on advertising, but Zammit Lewis is among the ministers who breached those guidelines.

It also said that the government is rewarding friendly media by giving them money while punishing other media houses by excluding them. Repubblika insisted that government spending should be transparent.

Repubblika also noted that this will probably be one of Hyzler’s last reports, having been nominated to the European Court of Auditors. While it congratulated him on his new role, Repubblika said Dr Hyzler is one of a few officials who acted in an objective way when it comes to bad governance. It said it is concerned that his place will be left empty or, worse still, it will be filled by some government lackey.

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