The inquiry into the alleged embezzlement of public funds at the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools (FTS) has left a bitter aftertaste for inquiring Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera, whose investigation has incurred the wrath of a disparaging Attorney General and the Minister for Education, Louis Galea.
AG Silvio Camilleri rubbished conclusions reached by Scerri Herrera to highlight various allegations into the suspect issuing of over Lm400,000 worth of direct orders, issued arbitrarily by the FTS between 2002 and 2003 without any form of public call for tender, a remarkable number of which went to Minister Galea’s constituents.
With that comes the condescending sounding off by the Ministry of Education, once again escaping unscathed from all allegations at the heart of the troubled FTS, which chose to criticise Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera’s efforts in carrying out the inquiry.
A victory for the State, and indeed a confusing desecration of the Magistrate’s investigating powers, which at first glance look to be very few indeed.
The inquiry into the FTS direct orders was launched just following a series of articles appearing in MaltaToday in October 2003, detailing an extensive list of direct orders issued to a series of companies whose interests were held by Louis Galea’s constituents from his two electoral districts. After weeks of withholding the information, with FTS chief executive Alfred Ferrante refusing to divulge the direct orders list, a parliamentary question forced the information into the public domain.
From then on, a chain of events was unleashed, not least with the sacking of Ferrante himself, and the transfer of four project officers back into the Education Division.
A year later, the results of an inquiry by Consuelo Scerri Herrera, in which allegations of favouritism, nepotism and evidence of financial irregularities were made, do not result in any criminal proceedings being taken against any of the members from the FTS board of directors.
In the face of clear evidence of Lm400,000 worth of direct orders, 30 per cent of which were awarded to Galea’s electoral constituents, who invoiced the foundation in segmented amounts so as not to add up to anything more than a total of Lm10,000 at a time - which otherwise would have required a call for tenders - Louis Galea’s FTS emerges relatively spotless.
Instead the guns are turned onto the inquiring Magistrate. With that comes the exoneration of yet another Minister whose portfolio reeks of bad friendships: Mario Callus, a FTS director who was only removed by Galea months after the inquiry started, along with FTS chairman Conrad Thake, is a former PN President of the Siggiewi district, Galea’s hometown. Like many other close acolytes such as Galea’s personal driver, Callus was a recipient of direct orders from the Auxiliary Workers Training Scheme (AWTS).
According to the inquiring Magistrate however, her work was overshadowed by the lack of assistance offered by the Police Commissioner. According to the AG, a misunderstanding resulted in a complication – at the outset, Assistant Commissioner Emanuel Cassar informed Scerri Herrera the Police could not involve themselves in the investigation since Labour MP Carmelo Abela, who asked for the inquiry to be held, had made his report to the duty Magistrate rather than the police, because he had stated that police involvement could create “administrative obstacles.” Although he provided the services of an inspector, the latter “appears to have understood his instructions to mean that he was not to give any further assistance to the magistrate.”
In the end, the AG’s verdict on the matter was that the Police had been right in feeling peeved off at Abela’s lack of confidence, and that it was not “opportune that the Magistrate should rely on the services of the same police.”
The Minister of Education stopped from commenting directly on this statement, instead reminding that an ‘investigation’ was already being carried out by the Auditor General on FTS. It is in fact an investigation which so far has not yet publicised any results, so much so that in her inquiry, Scerri Herrera said that until August 2004, nobody from the FTS Board had been called for investigation by the Auditor, and that only on one occasion had information been retrieved from the FTS, back in April. The investigation has been going on for the past two years.
It was in fact the Auditor’s investigation which had prompted the then Attorney General, Anthony Borg Barthet, to inform Scerri Herrera back in 2003 not to embark on any “fishing expedition” in the search for any truth into the allegations made about the FTS.
Despite opposition from the state to have the inquiry go ahead, Scerri Herrera called for the police to take action with several of the allegations made by witnesses heard on the matter. The reactions from the AG were disparaging of her conclusions.
Given that the information on the ad hoc issuing of direct orders had already been made public in the media, and because her assistant John Bonnici had already reported on the financial irregularities apparent in FTS, such flouting of public procurement regulations should be considered a criminal offence, “because the money comes from the government, as in the case of FTS, these are the people’s money.”
Scerri Herrera pointed out that former CEO Alfred Ferrante had said that chairman Conrad Thake had employed architects with whom he believes Thake had shown favouritism, mentioning architects Tony Camilleri, Paul Micallef, Andrew Ellul and Joseph Bondin, possibly through their involvement in the Malta Environment and Planning Authority or because Paul Micallef is in fact related to Louis Galea himself.
Galea responded by pointing out Micallef’s elaborate family tree: not only is he married to his cousin, but Micallef’s wife is also cousin to former Labour MP Louis Buhagiar and a sister of another former Labour MP, Joe Cilia.
“It is not the first time that the Court has Magistrates and Judges who have family members in Parliament on either side of the House. Should this reflect on the judiciary?” Galea snidely ponders, without referring directly to the fact that Scerri Herrera is sister to Labour MP Jose Herrera.
Saviour Balzan, MaltaToday editor, who was called to present more evidence than what had already appeared on this newspaper, was admonished by the Education Ministry for presenting “serious and unfounded” allegations in which he said the recipients of direct orders were “hailing from Galea’s electoral districts. There are other Parties, other people who are not from Galea’s districts but have political connections to the PN… others are serving as a front for other people who are either acquaintances of or are close to Minister Galea…”. Pressed for his sources by police investigator, Balzan declined, in line with common journalistic ethics. The stance found no favour with either the AG or Galea himself.
However, both instances of allegations levelled by Ferrante and Balzan were referred by Scerri Herrera to the police for investigation. Although police investigations failed to bear any fruit, the AG’s surprising reaction was that Scerri Herrera should have continued to investigate the facts herself, instead of referring the matter to the police, which had been scorned by Carmelo Abela who “did not consider it opportune to file his report with in the first place.”
With no apparent demarcation of power to carry out a thorough investigation of the FTS either by the Magistrate or the Police, the workings of the FTS – today no longer under the stewardship of either Thake or Callus – have remained untouched, and the Scerri Herrera inquiry falls flat on its face because no further action will be taken to establish how such proven financial irregularities at FTS will not be followed by any criminal prosecution.
Scerri Herrera’s inquiry lays down the line that financial irregularities such as those found in the FTS should be considered to be a criminal offence. Galea has responded by saying such inferences should be left up to Parliament to decide, and not a Magistrate.
And that is in fact an issue which Minister Louis Galea appears to be relatively undisturbed about – the irregularities at FTS are there, and with them a stamp of favouritism uncannily similar to the AWTS scandal. That they bear no instance for criminal prosecution does not hide the fact that all is not well at the foundation.