The Malta Independent 2 December 2023, Saturday
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Standards Commissioner refused to investigate seven times, only one MP penalised

Marc Galdes Sunday, 16 July 2023, 09:00 Last update: about 6 months ago

Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, Joseph Azzopardi, has penalised one minister, but has refused to investigate seven other complaints since his appointment four months ago.

Azzopardi was sworn in on 8 March and since then has received multiple complaints from individuals and NGOs, mainly from independent candidate Arnold Cassola.

The Standards Commissioner has jurisdiction over members of Parliament, including ministers and parliamentary secretaries and persons of trust. The role is to ensure that all these people abide by the rules of ethical conduct.


Cassola told The Malta Independent on Sunday: “While I have my doubts about certain decisions of the Standards Commissioner, I believe he is interpreting the law as it is and he is interpreting the letter of the law. So basically he is doing his work in a very legal way within strict legal parameters and maybe he is not giving importance to the human consequences of actions being taken.”          

Arguably, Azzopardi’s most controversial decision came recently when he chose not to investigate the Speaker of the House, Anglu Farrugia, after Cassola filed a complaint, as according to the commissioner there would be a conflict of interest since the Speaker presides over the Standards Committee, which oversees the commissioner’s report.

“This creates a contrast between the role of the Speaker and the role of the commissioner, which might be legally correct according to the word of the law, but the result of such action means that the Speaker is now above scrutiny. The result is that now a Speaker of the Maltese Parliament, whoever he is, can do whatever he wants right or wrong without ever being subjected to an investigation,” Cassola said.

The complaint was filed after Farrugia voted against the adoption of a report by former Commissioner George Hyzler in June 2022, which had found that 18 ministers breached ethics by using public funds for a partisan advert in the Labour Party’s newspaper.

The report found that the ministers were all in breach of four articles of the Ministerial Code of Ethics by spending €16,700 in public funds for a manifestly partisan scope, and had recommended that the money be paid back.

Cassola said there is a clear contradiction in this decision, with the Speaker completely dismissing a decision taken by the Standard Commissioner’s office.

“These are contradictions which come out, which unfortunately will not benefit the appropriateness of politicians’ behaviour in Maltese politics.”

“Remember that the law has also been made by parliamentarians who are interested in protecting themselves. The first major flaw of the law, on which both PN and PL agreed, is that any misbehaviour prior to October 2018 is not to be investigated. That's when they did the law,” Cassola said.

When the law was enacted, both sides of the House agreed that alleged misbehaviour can only be reported within a one-year period of it happening, not even from when it is discovered, Cassola added.

“Politicians who voted for that law, PN and PL in 2018, did everything to ensure that they would be investigated as little as possible.”

The only instance when Commissioner Azzopardi penalised a minister for breaching the code of ethics was over a Facebook-sponsored post advert by Finance Minister Clyde Caruana. The complaint was filed by Cassola in October 2022, at a time when the post of commissioner was vacant after the resignation of Hyzler. It was one of the first decisions made by Commissioner Azzopardi when he was appointed in March.

Since the advert, which included the name and photograph of the minister, the Commissioner concluded that this represented a breach of ethics. However, because the sponsored post cost less than €90, €83.90 to be precise, he said that the case was not of a grievous nature and only requested a public apology. Caruana formally apologised and, on his own initiative, paid the cost of the sponsored post.


Commissioner did not investigate the Transport minister twice

Since Azzopardi’s appointment as commissioner, he has refused to investigate two complaints against Transport Minister Aaron Farrugia.

After a video was released, in November 2022, showing two Transport Malta officers beating a man in the middle of the street, Farrugia was accused of not entering the parliamentary chamber, although he was in the building, to avoid addressing this incident when it was his turn to answer questions during parliamentary question time. A complaint was filed by Repubblika.

In April the commissioner chose not to investigate Farrugia, as although he noted that Farrugia was in breach of the code of ethics, which state that all ministers must attend Parliament except when they are away on work or sick, the commissioner simply attributed his absence to “bad planning”.

Another instance involving Farrugia was when the commissioner refused to investigate a complaint by Cassola in 2021, which pointed out that 50% of the government’s beneficiary scheme Irrestawra l-faccata came from the electoral districts of Farrugia. This amounted to seven recipients, out of the 14, who got the grant in all of Malta and Gozo.

Former commissioner Hyzler, in February 2022, had deemed that a preliminary investigation should be started. Nevertheless, although current Commissioner Azzopardi confirmed that 50% of streets awarded grants are in the minister’s electoral districts, he chose not to investigate as they were “much-trafficked areas”.

The commissioner stated that it is impossible to compare the traffic intensity of these roads with the intensity of traffic in other streets not awarded such grants. He added that it was impossible for his office to make a historical and architectural evaluation of the streets concerned.


Refusing to investigate CEOs and chairperson

The commissioner has also refused to investigate three people as they do not match the definition of a person of trust as defined by the law on standards in public life.

In simple terms, a person of trust as defined by the law refers to persons from outside the public sector and service, who engage with the public sector or service in some way.

“Any employee or person engaged directly from outside the public service and the public sector to act as consultant or staff in the private secretariat of a minister or (ii) any employee or person engaged directly from outside the public service and the public sector to act as consultant or staff in the private secretariat of a parliamentary secretary or (iii) a person engaged in the event that a post remains vacant following repetitive public calls for engagement…”

Cassola had filed a complaint regarding the CEO of Malta Enterprise, Kurt Farrugia and the chairperson of the State Aid Monitoring Board, Paul Zahra as they allegedly did not provide all the information for the National Audit Office audit into the “fraudulent” concessionary hospitals’ deal when called by the Auditor General. The commissioner ruled that he is unable to investigate both people as they were not persons of trust.

The commissioner gave the same reasoning when he refused to investigate the CEO of Project Green, Steve Ellul after Cassola filed a complaint against Environment Minister Miriam Dalli and Ellul with regard to a promotional post about one of Project Green’s parks on Facebook by popular singer Ira Losco. In this regard, the commissioner said he would be investigating Dalli but not Ellul.

Following his appointment, the commissioner’s first refusal to investigate was on 5 April, when Azzopardi decided not to investigate Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo for not tabling two contracts in Parliament, but then tabling them later.

This was a complaint filed by Cassola on 17 February when the independent MP alleged that Bartolo was refusing to pass on adequate information to Parliament about Pierre Fenech, who was occupying two posts under the Tourism Ministry – CEO of the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS) and at the same time CEO of the Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC).

PN MP Mario de Marco had initially asked for Fenech’s contracts on 14 February through a parliamentary question, however, Bartolo did not table them. After Cassola’s complaint was filed, on 20 February, de Marco asked for the contact again and this time Bartolo tabled both contracts.

In his ruling, the commissioner noted that it was wrong for Bartolo not to table the contracts initially without any proper explanation, but having tabled the contracts later, the commissioner did not find any basis to investigate the complaint.


More pending requests for investigations

Since the commissioner’s appointment, he has also received numerous new complaints from Cassola and Repubblika.

Most recently, Cassola requested that the commissioner investigates the PM’s “arrogant, insensitive” behaviour after he hosted an event with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra at Girgenti Palace, which Abela’s relatives, colleagues and Love Island participants attended, right after the government shot down the Opposition’s request for a public inquiry into the death of Jean Paul Sofia.

Other complaints made by Cassola ask the commissioner to investigate the PM for allowing his predecessor Joseph Muscat to retain and use his diplomatic passport, to investigate whether the wife of Muscat, Michelle Muscat, is benefitting from the use of two drivers and to investigate the PM for giving Muscat an office for free.

Repubblika also filed a complaint asking the commissioner to investigate allegations made against Lands Minister Silvio Schembri on his constituency office in Luqa and independent MP Rosianne Cutajar for not disclosing her "additional" work as an ITS consultant when she submitted her required financial statements to Parliament for 2019.

Contacted by this newspaper, the Office of the Standards Commissioner said that as of 8 March, when the current Commissioner for Standards in Public Life was appointed, the office had 27 pending complaints (requests for investigations). “Subsequently we received a further 16 complaints,” the office said.

Since 8 March, the Commissioner for Standards has resolved a total of 12 complaints, so currently there are 31 pending complaints. Some of these are under preliminary review while others are the focus of formal investigations.

The commissioner has started one additional investigation on his own initiative in accordance with the powers given to him by the Standards in Public Life Act, the office said.

It is not possible to provide details of the investigations that are taking place, the office said.

Not all of the commissioner’s rulings are made public. When the commissioner decides not to investigate, his decision is sent to the complainant only and is not made available on the office’s website.

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