Front page.

NEWS | Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Bookmark and Share


Prime Minister mum on Tonio Fenech’s breach of Ministerial Code of Ethics, as fresh questions emerge over his ill-judged trip with Fenech and Gasan

• Tonio Fenech’s flight to Spain breached the Ministers’ Code of Ethics
• Fenech knew of impending gaming reform when he accepted ‘freebie’ gift
• Nationalist MPs contradict Prime Minster on ‘anonymous letter’ claim

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has come out in full defence of his beleaguered Finance Minister this week, after revelations last Sunday that Tonio Fenech had accepted an invitation to accompany businessmen Joe Gasan and George Fenech on the latter’s private jet to watch an Arsenal match in Spain.
In so doing, Fenech breached the Code of Ethics for Ministers on at least three counts. This code, available for viewing on the Parliament website (, includes the following provisos: “No Minister should accept gifts or services such as might be deemed to create an obligation, real or imaginary. The same rule applies to the spouse of a Minister and to his minor children.” (Section 58)
“Ministers occupy a position that makes them more than ordinarily open to undue pressures from persons who would like the Minister to use his position to gain some undue advantage for themselves. Ministers are duty bound to totally and immediately reject any attempt of this kind, but when the attempt is accompanied by the offer of some gift, whatever its value, the Minister should also report this to the Prime Minister without delay.” (Section 59).
The same code also specifies that when travelling, Ministers should inform the Prime Minister in writing beforehand, and submit a report of their trip upon their return.
It transpires that Tonio Fenech, an avid Arsenal fan, was accompanied on this trip by his young son and nephew, and that – contrary to initial reports – also by George Fenech himself, who is the owner of two casinos: the Oracle in Qawra, and the Portomaso casino in St Julian’s.
Lawrence Gonzi gave Fenech his full permission to participate on a freebie flight – paid for by leading entrepreneurs, at last one of whom had (and still has) a direct interest in a sector the same finance minister was shortly to reform – regardless of the conditions of the ethics code, which clearly prohibit such behaviour on the part of ministers.

Damage limitation
In an interview with The Times yesterday – widely perceived to be an exercise in damage limitation, following Sunday’s revelations in MaltaToday – Tonio Fenech further revealed that this was only one of several such invitations sent to him via email by Mr Gasan, and “the only one he accepted”.
The timing of his ‘one-off’ acceptance is however bound to raise eyebrows. The Finance Minister chose to accompany George Fenech to Spain last April: just a month after Tonio Fenech himself had presented a yearly report to Cabinet, proposing a series of changes to the Lotteries and Gaming Act.
The Finance Minister admitted this in his interview with The Times: “The reality is that these regulations have long been coming and Cabinet had rejected them a number of times. It is a very sensitive issue and I was wary about whether a renewed attempt to raise them in Cabinet would have been successful. We are not comfortable to see Malta being turned into Las Vegas...”
Furthermore, his ‘fatal flight’ to Spain took place only two months before the expiry of the 10-year lease of the Dragonara Casino in St Julian’s – until last June, managed by French-owned group Accord.
Apart from already being a leading player in the local gaming sector, George Fenech is currently one of the bidders for the same Dragonara lease tender. MaltaToday is reliably informed that news of Fenech’s indiscretion with Fenech and Gasan last April – at a time when his government was intent on reforming the same sector in which one of them is deeply involved – did not go down too well with the rest of Malta’s gaming industry... to put it mildly.
George Fenech is in fact already perceived to have been favoured by decisions taken by the Lotteries and Gaming authority, which falls under Tonio Fenech’s portfolio (see separate story below).

Blackmail claims
Lawrence Gonzi’s vehement defence of his Cabinet minister has also extended to implying that Fenech was being blackmailed by means of an ‘anonymous letter’ which referred to another (unconfirmed) trip on George Fenech’s private jet, this time to watch Wimbledon; and that this letter was brought up by the Prime Minister himself at last Saturday’s parliamentary group meeting.
However, Nationalist MPs privately expressed their bewilderment to this newspaper at this turn of events: claiming they had no recollection whatsoever of this letter being discussed (still less presented) at the meeting at Villa Francia last Saturday.
One backbencher commented pointedly: “I must have been either drunk or asleep at this meeting, as I don’t remember this letter being presented at all.”
Nor is it clear how the presumed blackmail scenario – even if founded on fact – would exonerate Tonio Fenech from charges of improper conduct. As one of Fenech’s parliament colleagues put it to this newspaper: “All the more reason not to accept such invitations, if they can afterwards be used to blackmail a Cabinet minister.”

Wall of silence
Questioned by this newspaper about the self-evident breach of the above sections of the Ministerial Code of Ethics, both Tonio Fenech and the Prime Minister resolutely refused to comment.
Gonzi limited his reply to a terse, one-line statement to say that he had “nothing to add to what he said last Sunday and to what Minister Tonio Fenech said in today’s interview.”
Last Sunday, Gonzi claimed that the allegations of a conflict of interest formed part of a ‘mud-slinging campaign’ by parties who ‘wanted to influence the government’s decision on who would get the licence to run the casino.’
However, it is not clear specifically to whom the Prime Minister was referring to when he made this claim. The allegations were in fact made at a parliamentary group meeting on Saturday by PN backbencher Franco Debono, who asked whether Fenech had a “conflict of interest” by accepting this invitation.
Yesterday, Tonio Fenech was once again asked to comment, this time in Parliament by Opposition leader Joseph Muscat.
Fenech replied by echoing Gonzi almost to the letter: “I have nothing to add to what I said in a interview with The Times yesterday” – to which Muscat replied that, unlike The Times, the House of representatives was “the country’s highest institution” and as such deserved an answer.
On his part, Gonzi only added that he saw “no reason for a ministerial statement” in yesterday’s sitting.

The following questions, put to the Prime Minister by MaltaToday, to date remain unanswered:

1. Was the Prime Minister informed beforehand that both George Fenech and Joe Gasan were to accompany Tonio Fenech on this trip to watch an Arsenal match?
2. Was Dr Gonzi informed in writing, as stipulated by section 28 of the Minister’s Code of Ethics? And did Minister Fenech submit a report on his return?
3. Apart from the flight on board George Fenech’s jet, and presumably the match tickets, is the Prime Minister aware of any other gifts/offers accepted by Minister Tonio Fenech from either George Fenech or Joe Gasan? (For instance, accommodation in London, meals, etc.)?
4. In view of article 58: how can the Prime Minister insist that there was nothing unethical about Tonio Fenech’s behaviour, when as a cabinet minister Tonio Fenech is bound by section 58 of the same Code to not accept gifts or services such as might be deemed to create an obligation, real or imaginary?

5. In view of the fact that Minister Tonio’s Fenech son and nephew were also on board the aircraft... does the Prime Minister see no conflict with section 58 of the same code?
6. Section 59 makes it very clear that a Minister is “duty bound to totally and immediately reject” any “undue pressures from persons who would like the Minister to use his position to gain some undue advantage for themselves” especially “when the attempt is accompanied by the offer of some gift, whatever its value”. How, therefore, can the Prime Minister defend Tonio Fenech when his actions last March opened him up precisely to the sort of suspicion that this section of the same Code was intended to avoid?
7. In defending Minister Fenech, Dr Gonzi said that the trip took place before the Dragonara Casino tender was being adjudicated. Is the Prime Minister suggesting that his government was unaware last April that the nine-year lease on the Dragonara Casino was to expire this year?
8. In Dr Gonzi’s view, how does this episode reflect on his own political judgement as Prime Minister... when it was he himself who gave the Finance Minister the go-ahead to accept gifts and services provided by leading entrepreneurs (in direct conflict with the Ministers’ Code of Ethics), who also have a direct interest in aspects of his own government’s financial policy?
9. Other Cabinet ministers appear to have been treated with a different yardstick when it comes to real or imaginary conflicts of interest. One example that springs to mind (though there are others) was Transport Minister Jesmond Mugliett, who was asked to renounce his shares in a company involved in the Manuel Dimech bridge project, precisely to avoid accusations of a conflict of interest. Does the Prime Minister see no contradiction in the way Mugliett and Fenech were asked to behave?
10. On Monday, Minister Fenech told The Times: “If I knew at the time that we were going to crack down on the gaming parlours I would have been more careful but I had no such indication.” Immediately afterwards he said: “The reality is that these regulations have long been coming and Cabinet had rejected them a number of times. It is a very sensitive issue and I was wary about whether a renewed attempt to raise them in Cabinet would have been successful. We are not comfortable to see Malta being turned into Las Vegas.”
Is the Prime Minister concerned that his Finance Minister would tell the press he had ‘no indication’ of a forthcoming crackdown on gaming parlours last March... when he himself (by his own admission) had recommended precisely such regulations that same month, and also more than once in preceding years?



Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below.
Please write a contact number and a postal address where you may be contacted.



Download front page in pdf file format


All the interviews from Reporter on MaltaToday's YouTube channel.

The law of perceptions

Saviour Balzan
Exorcise yourself, Tonio

Anna Mallia
There is a Code of Ethics for Ministers, too

Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email