NEWS | Sunday, 14 October 2007

Dalli left hanging as auditor report remains unfinished

James Debono

A long awaited report by the Auditor General into the procurement of air tickets by government ministries is still pending three years since the inquiry was launched upon the resignation of former minister John Dalli – but the Auditor General is not even reporting for work, MaltaToday can confirm.
The report was believed to be an investigation into the purchase of air tickets in John Dalli’s foreign ministry, before MaltaToday confirmed last July it was an exercise covering all ministries’ procurement practices.
Now, three years since Dalli’s self-proclaimed “forced resignation”, Lawrence Gonzi has insisted he will not commit himself to restore the former finance and foreign minister to Cabinet, the prime minister has told MaltaToday.
And statements by PN secretary-general Joe Saliba that Dalli would be exonerated by the report’s findings now ring hollow: Dalli was never under investigation, and Gonzi will not commit himself to reinstating Dalli as a minister once the report is concluded.
The matter is a complex issue because Auditor General Joseph G. Galea’s appointment was renewed beyond the Constitutional limit of two consecutive terms. He was reappointed on 28 July moments after MaltaToday confirmed the outgoing Galea would not be presenting Gonzi with the crucial audit on the procurement of air tickets – as yet unfinished on Galea’s last day of work.
John Dalli claims the purchase of Lm40,000 in air tickets, was “the excuse used by the Prime Minister to accept my resignation, short of not being accused of any wrongdoing.”
Dalli however argues the real reason for his “forced resignation” was the fabricated Joe Zahra report on alleged kickbacks received for a medical equipment tender at Mater Dei Hospital.
“The airline tickets report is totally irrelevant as can be construed from PN secretary-general Joe Saliba’s declaration that the real reason for my forced resignation was the Zahra report and all I am expecting is a confirmation of this to clear this issue once and for all,” Dalli told Maltatoday when contacted on Friday.
The Courts had found the former freemason, police sergeant and Bondi plus consultant Joe Zahra guilty of fabrication and condemned him to two years’ imprisonment. The case is on appeal.

Asked whether the air tickets report has any bearing on his decision to reappoint John Dalli as minister, Gonzi has conveniently replied that “the Constitution states that the appointment of ministers is at the sole discretion of the Prime Minister.”
But Dalli still expects the airline tickets report to be published as soon as possible. “This report has been in preparation for three and a half years. This is a ridiculous timeframe and I cannot see what has kept the report from being published.”
Dalli insists that all he is interested in at this stage is that all doubts created back in 2004 about his integrity are removed.

Investigation rings hollow
The impression that the former minister was the subject of an investigation was reinforced by secretary-general Joe Saliba on Super One TV last December, when he stated his belief that Dalli “will not be found to have done anything inappropriate” once the NAO finalises the audit.
But speaking on PBS programme Reporter in June, Saliba seemed to have been caught off-guard when claiming Dalli’s resignation had been accepted due to the police investigation of the Joe Zahra report: the private investigator’s fabricated report which implicated Dalli’s brother Sebastian, an entrepreneur, in a tender kickback.
Last Monday during Bondiplus, Joe Saliba refused to answer Labour journalist Charlon Gouder’s persistent questions on why Dalli had resigned.
But it now also emerges that the man entrusted by the government to finalise the investigation, Joseph G. Galea, is not even reporting to work on a regular basis. In the past two weeks, MaltaToday’s daily phone calls to the auditor’s office were always answered by secretaries claiming that Galea could not reply as he was not in his office.
Only on Thursday was MaltaToday told that Galea could not answer the phone as he was in a meeting. Galea’s absence from work was also confirmed by other sources.
Asked how he expects an Auditor General, absent from work on most days of the week, to finalise the report, the Prime Minister replied that he “has no doubt that the Auditor General’s Office is fully equipped to carry out all its duties in accordance with the Constitution.”
The Prime Minister would not comment on Galea’s absence from his office claiming that the Auditor General is “answerable to Parliament.”
MaltaToday also sent an email to the Speaker of the House Anton Tabone asking whether the Auditor is reporting to work, but no reply was forthcoming.

Uncertain future
Former finance minister John Dalli could end up contesting the next election without any verdict on the allegations that reportedly led to his resignation in 2004, as Joseph G. Galea – who in July was asked by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi to finalise a three-year investigation into the procurement of air tickets by government ministries – is now regularly absent from work.
Writing on the Sunday Times two weeks ago, Dalli asked: “What or who is keeping this report from seeing the light of day?”
He also described his experience as “a case where EU standards of respect of human rights are not respected in the least.”
But despite receiving daily phone calls and emails from MaltaToday for the past two weeks, the Auditor General would not confirm or deny Dalli’s subsequent claim that he has it “from political party sources that this report (of the airline tickets investigation) has been sitting on the Auditor General’s desk for months.”
It now emerges that the politically explosive NAO report, which could clear John Dalli’s name before the next election because it is not an investigation in the first place, lies in the hands of an Auditor General who is absent from his office on most days of the week.
Galea’s tenure was only “extended” in July within an hour of MaltaToday’s enquiries with the Office of the Prime Minister over the finalisation of the audit, when the contentious report was still unfinished on what should have been Galea’s last day of work.
The Prime Minister insists that the Auditor General’s term was not extended, as this is not allowed by the Constitution. “However, in agreement between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Galea was requested to ensure the proper running of the Office of the Auditor General up to when the Auditor General is appointed.”
Asked by MaltaToday why a successor has not yet been found to head the NAO, the Prime Minister replied that since the Auditor General is not appointed by the Prime Minister but by Parliament, and must enjoy the vote of two thirds of the Members of the House of Representatives.
On 19 June, a full month before Galea was kept in office, the Prime Minister had written to the Leader of the Opposition proposing two candidates for the posts of Auditor General and Deputy Auditor General.
“To date no reply was forthcoming from the Leader of the Opposition”, Gonzi said.
Contacted by MaltaToday, Opposition leader Alfred Sant confirmed that he received the two names and that he was still discussing them internally.
MLP Deputy Leader Charles Mangion, who presides over parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, acknowledged that at the moment there is a vacuum within the Auditor General’s office. “I think it should be settled. Nevertheless one has to acknowledge the fact that selecting a right candidate acceptable to both sides is a delicate matter.”
Asked whether, as head of the PAC, he would enquire on the status of the airline tickets report following John Dalli’s claim that the report is on the Auditor’s desk, Mangion insisted that this does not fall within the parameters of PAC. “I think that Dalli’s comments are directed towards Dr Gonzi particularly and not towards the PAC. Furthermore, the Speaker has the authority to request Auditor General to send said report, if ready.”
The Auditor General has completely ignored questions sent by email during the past two weeks. MaltaToday asked Galea whether he denied or confirmed John Dalli’s declaration on the Sunday Times that the report has been sitting on his desk for months. MaltaToday also asked Galea whether he has presented the conclusions of the report to the government.
Last year, the Auditor General received a demoralising blow when he found himself under investigation, after Investments Minister Austin Gatt questioned his report on financial mismanagement in the Voice of the Mediterranean. The Auditor’s investigation of the VOM vindicated a probe by former MaltaToday journalist Julian Manduca.
Previously, the Auditor had also clashed with Education Minister Louis Galea on a report on financial irregularities at the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools. Galea’s report was deemed “unacceptable” by the Prime Minister and Education Minister Louis Galea had promised to “tear the Auditor’s report to bits”.

NAO inquiry:

Auditor’s reappointment:

Dalli’s resignation:

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