The Malta Independent 28 May 2023, Sunday
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Piling up: New Standards Commissioner has at least 7 cases to deal with

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 5 February 2023, 08:10 Last update: about 5 months ago

The new Standards Commissioner, expected to be appointed in the coming weeks, already knows that there are at least seven investigations to carry out – those which have been presented by independent candidate Arnold Cassola since the previous incumbent left his position.

George Hyzler resigned the post at the end of September to take on the role as Malta’s representative on the European Court of Auditors, warning before he left that “it would be detrimental to leave the Office unoccupied”.


But more than four months have passed since then and his replacement is still to be named, while requests for an investigation by the commissioner continue to be submitted. With Parliament last Monday voting in favour of a change to the law with regard to how a Standards Commissioner is appointed, it is likely that the seat will be filled in the coming weeks.

The exact number of cases the new commissioner will have to investigate is not known. Asked by The Malta Independent on Sunday to provide how many were left pending by Hyzler and the number of new cases that have been filed since the position became vacant, the Office of the Standards Commissioner would not reply.

“You may however wish to address your questions to the new Commissioner for Standards in Public Life once he or she is appointed,” this newspaper was told.

There are at least seven new cases that the commissioner will have to deal with, all submitted by Cassola, who has made his letters to the “future” commissioner public.

His latest one, filed last Monday, requests an investigation into the “abuse of power” by Prime Minister Robert Abela who, in a speech last Sunday, admitted that he had a private conversation with a magistrate on the courts’ sentencing policy. “Maltese laws prohibit any private communication with the judiciary on court procedures,” Cassola argued.

It was on 6 October, less than a week after Hyzler’s departure, that Cassola filed his first request. He called for an investigation into Finance Minister Clyde Caruana who, according to Cassola, breached guidelines established by the Standards Commissioner in June 2021 with regard to ministerial adverts.

The advert in question is “barefaced propaganda” paid for by public money and a “direct affront” to the said guidelines, Cassola claimed.

A similar complaint was filed on 11 October about an advert, this time by the Prime Minister, which was circulating on Facebook. Even this advert, Cassola said, went against the guidelines.

Cassola filed his third complaint on 26 October, this time against Active Aging Minister Jo-Etienne Abela, a renowned surgeon, who declared no income in 2021 (when he was still not elected) in his declaration of assets. No income was declared by the minister from salary, shares, bonds or investments, and neither is he the owner of property, Cassola said, urging an investigation. In a reply via social media, the minister said that there is no obligation to declare income for years during which he was not an MP.

On 24 November, Cassola had asked the “future” Standards Commissioner to investigate Education Minister Clifton Grima who, according to the independent candidate, “misled Parliament” when he refused to publish the audit that permitted the American University of Malta to continue operating. The minister had not replied to a PQ on the matter, referring to a website where, the minister said, the audit had been published. Cassola said that this was in breach of ministerial ethics.

Grima had replied that the audit report could be found on the website of the Malta Further and Higher Education Authority, but in a second email to the commissioner on the matter, Cassola had said that the report on the said website referred to the audit carried out in October 2020, not the one held between March and April 2022.

Two reports were then filed by Cassola on parliamentary secretary Chris Bonett in December and January.

The first, filed on 1 December, dealt with a visit by Bonett to Sicily in which, Cassola charged, a car, which is supposedly available for official duties, was used for a private holiday. Asked about this by The Malta Independent, Bonett had replied: "I look forward to it actually, because I know I did nothing wrong. Anyone who reads the rules, the manuals, code of ethics can see that the car has been used properly."

The second one, filed on 5 January, called for an investigation after Cassola alleged that passengers on an Air Malta flight had to forfeit their seats to make way for Bonett and his family who were on their way to a holiday in London.

Bonett had replied that he had not requested any preferential treatment and has receipts for what he paid for. Again, he said that he looked forward to explaining this to the Standards Commissioner.

Asked to comment about his requests, Cassola said that "with the Commissioner for Standards' post vacant for months on end, the existing weak checks and balances on politicians have been basically evirated.

Cassola said that “we have a Prime Minister who first criticised the judiciary for being a ‘closed shop’ in which ‘people who did not serve as magistrates are excluded from the process’; then accused the judiciary of demoralising the police with their judgements; then ‘ordered’ the police commissioner to intensify investigations into criminal cases (but, of course, not cases involving politicians) and now he has abused of his powers by discussing privately with a magistrate about Malta's sentencing policy and advocating stronger penalties”.

“Impunity and arrogance reign supreme. Keeping the Standards Commissioner's post vacant or having yes-men in key posts, will allow the Prime Minister to continue running roughshod over the basic tenets of democracy, transparency and accountability,” Cassola said.

The appointment of the new commissioner is now getting closer.

Last Monday, Parliament approved a government-proposed change to the law as to how a Standards Commissioner is appointed. The preference, according to the new law, still remains an appointment with a 2/3 majority, but, if after two votes taken on the name proposed does not lead to a consensus, then a simple majority vote will be enough to appoint the new incumbent.

The government and the Opposition have been at odds over the matter for the last months and, in fact, the Opposition MPs voted against the changes to the law last Monday.

Former Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi has been the government’s pick all along, but the Nationalist Party has opposed his nomination. The PN had put forward other names for the position, but the government did not budge.

Prime Minister Robert Abela has justified the introduction of an anti-deadlock mechanism saying that this was what the Venice Commission – a body of governance experts – had proposed, and that former PN leader Simon Busuttil had also suggested likewise in 2015.

Votes to appoint the new commissioner are expected later this month, and will possibly spill into March.

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