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When ‘fake news’ comes from a DOI press release

On Saturday, the Department of Information published a government press release stating that reports in the media, which we take to refer to our ‘Cover your Assets’ series on declarations of assets, contained “fake news”. Besides being blatantly abusive and Trump-like, it is also false and misleading.

The ongoing series being published by The Shift, ‘Cover Your Assets’, is critically analysing seven years of Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries’ asset declarations. It has emerged that the salaries of Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries have crept up.

If the ongoing debate started by our reports so far is anything to go by, this scrutiny is well overdue, and explanations are required.

The government’s press release instead refers to “allegations of increases in salaries” and them doubling. The explanation provided by the press release is that the salaries claimed in 2017 referred to half a year (presumably since the 2017 election) while those in 2018 referred to a whole year. This is patently misleading.

The press release also refers to social media posts by members of the Opposition, after a post by PN MP Jason Azzopardi on social media stating that junior ministers have had their salaries doubled “by stealth” to €60,000, and referring to The Shift’s reports.

Thanks to Caroline Muscat & TheShiftnews it's been revealed that Parliamentary Secretaries have had their salary DOUBLED…

Posted by Jason Azzopardi on Friday, 16 August 2019

 

What we said

As well as an overview of salaries collectively, The Shift has so far published assessments on Economy Minister Chris Cardona, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, and Parliamentary Secretaries Silvio Schembri and Deo Debattista. The series is ongoing.

The Parliamentary Secretary declarations by Schembri and Debattista published show their declared income doubled between 2017 and 2018.

The government claims that the €33,900 that both Schembri and Debattista declared as income in 2017 is simply half a year’s income. That is disingenuous.

If we were to take that explanation as accurate, then both Schembri and Debattista earned no income whatsoever for six months in 2017, until their first salary as Parliamentary Secretary came in at the end of June 2017.

Yet both Schembri and Debattista were MPs before being appointed Parliamentary Secretaries, so they were, as a minimum, in receipt of six months of MP honoraria (approximately €1,600 a month). In addition, both likely had other sources of income during the first part of 2017, including lectureship positions, private practice, and memberships of Boards and committees.

The purpose of declarations of assets is to declare ALL income and financial interests. How else can the public scrutinise its officials?

This leaves us with two options: Either the press release by the government is intentionally misleading, or both Schembri and Debattista omitted income from their sworn declarations of assets, essentially lying to parliament and the public. Which one is it?

The purpose of the ‘Cover Your Assets’ series is precisely to spotlight these inconsistencies, omissions and tricks which both show the lack of effective oversight as well as deception, intentional or otherwise. Far from “fake news”, this is well overdue scrutiny using an essential tool in a democracy – declarations of assets.

Are salaries really the same as in 2013?

The government’s press release includes another statement: “Salaries of all Cabinet members are exactly as they were in 2013”. While the government is well aware that the media will reproduce the statement, this is not what the asset declarations filed reflect.

For the sake of correctness, the Nationalist Government in 2013 did not increase Ministers or Parliamentary Secretary…

Posted by Tonio Fenech on Sunday, 18 August 2019

Rather than hit out at inaccuracies and labelling reports as “fake news” the government clearly has some explaining to do on what the Prime Minister, Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries are paying themselves and how this is calculated. That is setting the record straight in the public interest, attacking others is not.

The salaries of Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries are tied to Scale 1 plus allowances. These allowances are set at a percentage, according to the packages established by Cabinet decisions taken in 2003 and 2008 and published in the NAO report.

The government has stated the salaries have remained the same as those in 2013. Have the allowances remained the same too?

A look through the declarations of assets over the years shows that declared income has crept up. But there is more.

The Attorney General’s salary was also increased by legal notice this year from €44,800 to €62,080.

The Legal Notice on the increase in the salary of the Attorney General.

It is clear that the public (and the press) have no clear idea of actual salaries.  Since 2015, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has not declared an actual figure for his income, stating only “salary Prime Minister” in his asset declarations.

Arnold Cassola published the declarations of Silvio Parnis, Silvio Schembri and Julia Farrugia, noting these Parliamentary Secretaries had all declared €60,000 as their salary.

Two salaries for Parliamentary Secretaries? I think government has tried to deceive the population with its press…

Posted by Arnold Cassola on Sunday, 18 August 2019

“It is evident that Parliamentary Secretaries are getting €60,000 as a salary. Silvio Parnis, Silvio Schembri, Julia Farrugia have all declared this sum as their salary. I do not know of any imbecile who declares more money that s/he earns to the income tax department.” Cassola said, asking the PM to clarify.

Reports by Lovin Malta and The Times of Malta have also failed to explain the variations in salaries declared.

Malta Today had reported in a June 2019 article on the latest set of declarations of assets:

“The ministerial salary is that of €62,978. The income of a parliamentary secretary is just over €60,000.”

That statement has since been removed (you can see the original version here and the new version here). While the figures were removed, they have not been replaced with alternative amounts which again leaves the question pending.

It is to be noted that questions sent to Cabinet members on asset declarations were not answered. Now that the government is giving out reactions, perhaps it would care to explain other findings published by The Shift as a result of the ‘Cover Your Assets‘ investigation, such as Cardona’s new directorship with a Labour publishing house that gets direct orders, including from his own Ministry, or why audited accounts have not been filed for eight years.

Perhaps the Prime Minister could also explain why no ministerial declarations were tabled in Parliament in 2017 (for the year 2016). Nobody noticed.

Our series is ongoing and there is much more to be revealed so do follow our investigation here.

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