Public perceptions play a part in which corruption allegations get investigated, and by whom
The latest allegations of corruption in a tendering process – namely, the privatisation of Malta Superyachts – have raised questions on the haphazard way in which such damning accusations are being handled by the government.
Last week, finance minster Tonio Fenech described the allegations as ‘hearsay’, partly explaining why he did not forward the claims to the Commissioner of Police for investigation back in September 2009. Since the matter was raised in parliament by the Opposition leader, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has acted fast to limit the damage from the perception that his office sat on the allegations for eight months: he reported the matter to the Commissioner of Police.
But is this delayed action hampering the perception of transparency in his government?
Back in 2007, Tonio Fenech treated similar allegations by a former Nationalist MP, Frank Portelli, of kickbacks on procurement tenders at Mater Dei hospital, with the same nonchalance. Portelli’s claims were pounced upon by the Labour media in early 2007, but Fenech – then parliamentary secretary for finance – had stated there was nothing to be investigated.
Caught by the media frenzy generated by the Labour party, Gonzi, as minister of finance, decided to ask the Commissioner for Police to investigate. The case remains open to this day. Portelli later was asked to contest for MEP in the 2009 elections with the Nationalist Party.
In other instances, Gonzi was moved by far more ‘meaty’ allegations when asking the police to investigate allegations of corruption. When the Dutch firm Simed had presented him in 2004 with a report by a private investigator on the kickbacks paid to ministers over the tender for the supply of medical equipment at Mater Dei, Gonzi asked the police to investigate over a month later.
The report was presented to him by Simed reps on 11 June, a day before the MEP elections at which the PN had registered its worst ever electoral result. John Dalli, then foreign minister, was implicated in the report by association with his brother, who was alleged to have arranged money transfers for the kickbacks. Dalli said that Gonzi had told him – on 3 July – that he “couldn’t have a minister in [his] Cabinet under investigation”. Dalli resigned there and then, but Gonzi only called Commissioner of Police John Rizzo to Castille to investigate the report on the 15 July.
The private investigator, Joe Zahra, was subsequently convicted of fabricating the allegations and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.
Corruption allegations – in whatever form they manifest themselves – are always hard to prove. The Permanent Commission Against Corruption, which was established in 1988, has dealt with 378 cases. It closed 366 cases. Only in three cases, did the Commission find “evidence of corruption”.
When the matter concerns government departments, the police are known to be effective in discovering a paper trail: note the effectiveness in the way bribery at the Malta Maritime Authority was uncovered over the issuing of mariners’ licences.
Similar action was taken when it was revealed that driving test instructors were being bribed, which led to an overhaul at the licensing and testing department; and most recently at the VAT office, where several clerks and officers were cancelling VAT payments for selected companies.
But then there are those who believe investigations by the police into corruption are not taken as seriously, because there is too much control from the government on the way the police operates: Labour MP Evarist Bartolo, who has led his party’s attack on the Delimara power station extension and the role of BWSC’s middleman Joseph Mizzi in securing the contract, has gone on record saying that he had little faith in putting the BWSC case to the police for investigation.
Then again, when allegations of irregularity started being bandied about by Labour, the BWSC contract was put to the Auditor General to investigate.
In his final report, the Auditor General said he could not substantiate any allegations of corruption. The government was satisfied with this, and did not need to put the matter to the Commissioner of Police to investigate.
The trouble with allegations is always what to do with them. Not everything that is irregular has been tainted by corruption: the finance minister may have his own yardstick of what is ‘hearsay’ and what isn’t.
But when the allegations catch the prime minister napping, there is the public perception to deal with.
Former Labour leader Alfred Sant had called the Commissioner of Police a “smokescreen” for the government when Gonzi beat him to the punch by forwarding the Opposition’s allegations on Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando for investigation.