The Malta Independent 5 March 2024, Tuesday
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Stop mocking us

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 11 February 2024, 08:55 Last update: about 24 days ago

It's been a year since Robert Abela rammed through his anti-deadlock legal amendment, making former Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi Standards Commissioner.

Since then not a single MP has been sanctioned - not one. Commissioner Azzopardi found any excuse not to investigate the bulk of complaints submitted. The few he investigated led to complete or partial exoneration of the offending MP. 

He only upheld two complaints during the whole of his term. Ironically one of them was against Jason Azzopardi, who was no longer an MP. It had nothing to do with Azzopardi's parliamentary duties but with his actions as a "private person" , It was lodged by Jason Micallef,  former ONE chairman, Ray Azzopardi, former Ambassador to Belgium and Labour party compere and Edward Montebello, former ONE news head and now Robert Abela's head of communications. Azzopardi was found in breach of ethics for failing to submit his tax returns.

It was a waste of time. Azzopardi couldn't be sanctioned.  In his wisdom Speaker Anglu Farrugia had ruled, when Joseph Muscat gave Konrad Mizzi an 80,000 euro consultancy, that since Muscat was no longer an MP the standards committee had no power to proceed against him. Despite having abused his power Muscat was let off the hook. That set a dangerous precedent.

The only other complaint fully upheld by Azzopardi was against Clyde Caruana. Caruana had used public funds for personal political publicity. Despite finding him guilty of breaching articles several of the Ministerial code, the Commissioner didn't consider Caruana's transgression as serious. The Commissioner reasoned that Caruana only abused a small sum of taxpayers' funds compared to the 19 other ministers who'd squandered tens of thousands more. So he wrote to Caruana informing him that the case could be "easily closed", it wasn't serious. All Caruana had to do was "send a short written apology acknowledging the breach of ethics and bind himself not to repeat it". To be fair, Caruana wrote the apology but also refunded the money.

The Commissioner partially upheld two other complaints. In the first he ruled that Minister Michael Farrugia "failed to tell the truth" about who proposed changes to the high-rise policy. Farrugia had requested the inclusion of  Imriehel in the high-rise zone soon after he met Yorgen Fenech, and then blamed an Evaluation committee for doing so. But the Commissioner exonerated Farrugia over more serious allegations that he lied that he "had no such meeting" with Fenech. When the case came before the Parliamentary standards committee Labour's MPs abstained and so did Speaker Anglu Farrugia. The Commissioner's report was adopted on the strength of the PN MPs on the committee. Farrugia has still not been sanctioned.

 

In the second case the Commissioner found Alicia Bugeja Said breached ethics when she used her name and political logo to advertise a "Swimming with Tuna" activity for ministry employees. Fish farm operators contributed to the event by providing transport to their fish farms.  The Commissioner commented that the fact that there was no financial contribution from industry operators "rendered the case less serious" and closed the case after Bugeja Said apologised, promising not to repeat her breach.

In one other case, the complaint wasn't upheld.  When Chris Bonnett travelled on a private holiday with his family on Airmalta, other passengers were moved from their pre-assigned seats to allow Bonnett to sit in the same row with his family.  The Commissioner concluded this wasn't Bonnett's fault but due to a glitch in Airmalta's ticketing system.  He ruled that Bonnett didn't seek unfair advantage or apply undue pressure despite having used his official gov e-mail to book his private holiday, clearly indicating he was the Parliamentary secretary.

In every single one of the remaining complaints, the Commissioner found some pretext for not investigating. Those are the ones we know about.  There may be many more.  When the Commissioner decides not to investigate, his office doesn't publish the report.  There's no mention of it on his website.  The complaint is kept absolutely secret.  We only find out if the complainant, who gets a copy of the commissioner's report, decides to publish it.

The Commissioner refused to investigate Aaron Farrugia twice.  In one case despite being in parliament minutes before, Farrugia failed to turn up in the chamber to answer questions about a brutal assault by Transport Malta officials on a defenceless driver. According to the Commissioner, Farrugia was only guilty of poor planning, not breaching ethics, despite the fact that the Code only excuses Ministers from attending Parliament if they're unwell or abroad.  In the second case the Commissioner refused to investigate Farrugia after 50% of beneficiaries selected for a facade restoration scheme came from his electoral districts.  The Commissioner's excuse was that "it was impossible for his office to make a historical and architectural evaluation of the streets concerned".

Azzopardi refused to investigate Rosianne Cutajar and Ian Borg because the events relating to their respective complaints occurred more than one year before - even though the information only surfaced days before the complaints were lodged.  He refused to investigate Owen Bonnici because Azzopardi claimed there were no grounds despite commenting that Norma Saliba should never have been appointed by Owen Bonnici. He refused to investigate the Prime-minister when the latter used public funds for personal publicity because the video clip shown in the boosted facebook post hadn't been produced specifically for that purpose - and it was cheap. He refused to investigate Kurt Farrugia, Malta Enterprise CEO, when the latter refused to provide information to the NAO because he was not "an MP or person of trust".

What's the point of having a Standards Commissioner?  Why spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' money to fund his office? The whole exercise is a whitewashing scam, a mockery of the nation. It's far easier for an MP to go through the eye of a needle than to be sanctioned for breaching ethics - even when they're flagrant and obscene. Just scrap the whole thing. It will save us money and the anguish of watching helpless as one scoundrel after another gets let off the hook.


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