Last Sunday’s revelation that the Prime Minister had turned down Transport Minister Jesmond Mugliett’s resignation offer will no doubt come as a surprise to many.
The issue revolves around the “cash for licences” scandal that rocked the Malta Transport Authority (ADT) two years ago. Last February, two of the indicted authority’s officials, Roderick Galea and Jason Buttigieg, were sacked from the authority, and permanently interdicted from public employment, after being convicted by the Law Courts on corruption charges. But they were subsequently retained at the authority on half-pay, apparently in direct defiance of the same court order.
To date, the ministry has cited as official reason for their retention the fact that the two officials, through their lawyer Dr Jason Azzopardi, had formally requested a Presidential pardon... thereby evoking a precedent, two years earlier at the same authority, in which an employee was similarly retained pending the pardon decision.
However, the issue at stake here has less to do with the official reason for their re-employment, as it does with the way this decision was actually taken. Initially, we were led to believe that it was taken at ADT board level. But outgoing CEO Gianfranco Selvaggi quashed this interpretation by claiming that the order had come directly from the Transport Minister Jesmond Mugliett himself, and that he had been opposed to it.
For his part, Mugliett countered this by claiming that the decision had been taken “collectively”, presumably in consultation with the Authority’s board… but this was subsequently rebutted by chairman Joe Gerada, who denied having been in any way consulted over the decision.
The implications are serious, and can only be exacerbated by the fact that one of the officials concerned, Roderick Galea, was formerly Mugliett’s own canvasser. But the most contentious aspect of the whole affair remains that Jesmond Mugliett made the “collective decision” claim in the House of Representatives, thus opening himself to accusations (which have already been levelled by Opposition leader Alfred Sant) of misleading Parliament.
If true, this would certainly be a resigning matter. The fact that Jesmond Mugliett did indeed offer to resign, and especially that his offer was turned down, now places an onus of responsibility on both the Minister and the government which stood by him. Both must convince us that the decision to reinstate these officials was above board, and taken collectively as the Minister claimed in parliament.
Writing in The Times yesterday, the embattled minister defended his position, explaining that the ADT’s decision to sack the two employees was not “overturned”, as suggested elsewhere, but merely postponed pending the outcome of their pardon request. This was corroborated by the Office of the Prime Minister, which told this newspaper that Mugliett was involved in an advisory capacity, limited to opining that the decision to sack the officials should be postponed until the pardon request was duly processed.
But there is a flaw in this argument. For even if granted, a pardon would only have commuted the permanent indictment to a temporary one; as such, this would not have directly resulted in the reinstatement of the two disgraced employees, still less justify their retention on half-pay.
Besides, questions remain over the “collective decision” claim. In answer to our request, OPM wrote that “Minister Mugliett said in parliament that the process involved a ‘collective discussion’ as he never imposed his opinion on the ADT CEO; but the issue was discussed with the CEO, the ADT Lawyer and Board Secretary, and others.”
However, the CEO Selvaggi had already publicly denied any part in these presumed “discussions”. And in any case: who are the “others”?
One interpretation, which has been raised by political commentator Lino Spiteri in a newspaper article on Monday, is that these “others” could have been other ministers in the cabinet. Ironically, this was given an enormous boost by what is arguably the most suspicious element in the entire equation: the Prime Minister’s evident concern to keep the whole resignation affair under wraps.
For it appears now that Lawrence Gonzi attempted to conceal from the nation the fact that one of his Cabinet ministers had tendered his resignation. In fact, it was only thanks to a leak to the media that people got to know about the development at all… and even then, a full six days after it had already taken place.
Compare this to the Prime Minister’s handling of another high profile resignation offer three years ago – when the relevant correspondence was published in full – and the picture that emerges is one of an administration which adopts different weights and measures in similar circumstances, depending on the persons involved. Worse, it smacks heavily of a cover-up.
At a time when government appears beset by corruption allegations from all quarters, the fact that Gonzi appears to have taken ownership of the controversial decision is deeply inauspicious. One sincerely hopes that Mugliett’s claims are proved correct, as now that the government has thrown its full weight behind him, the consequences otherwise could be far more serious than a single ministerial resignation.
But the greatest disappointment of all is arguably the Prime Minister’s “behind closed doors” approach to the issue. This must go down as yet another lost opportunity for Gonzi to convince us that he was being serious when, four years ago, he promised us a “new way of doing politics.”