Labour MEP Josianne Cutajar has not been around for long. It was only three months ago that she made her entrance onto the political scene with a carcade that received “presidential treatment” all the way to her village in Gozo. But she has quickly learnt the tricks of the trade.
In an article she put her name to in Labour Party newspaper Kullħadd she makes defamatory statements based on unfounded claims to throw mud at those who reveal the government’s hidden tactics. By doing so, she serves to perpetuate the misinformation they continue to deliver to the public.
“What do they care about facts!” is the title of her piece (exclamation mark and all, bless her). The gist of the article is that The Shift was wrong on asset declarations, “fake news” that was all part of a PN plot – you can judge for yourselves whether the PN even bothered taking up the issue – but it’s part of the government’s narrative to discredit The Shift, which we’ve seen over and over again.
While our investigations are picked up by international news portals and receive international recognition, Cutajar is still reading out of the government’s playbook. She states that The Shift’s in-depth analysis of declarations over seven years, that also noted the increase in Parliamentary Secretaries’ declared income between 2017 and 2018, was all about this news portal’s “malicious intentions”.
Cutajar states that journalists should stick to reporting “current affairs”, by which she presumably means that we should fall in line and report government press releases instead of investigating and holding those in power accountable.
Ironically, she says this in a newspaper owned by the Labour Party and which the investigation has revealed has Economy Minister Chris Cardona as its sole director. The investigation also revealed that the company is in breach of MFSA rules for not having filed its audited accounts for eight years and counting. And the investigation also revealed that the same company was receiving direct orders from the government, even from Cardona’s own Ministry – which direct orders may require Ministerial approval.
So much for the distinction between State and ruling political party. Cardona and the Labour Party have refused to address these issues, ignoring questions sent to them by this news portal – not that Cutajar is interested, despite her assertions about sticking to facts. And her arguments trying to discredit the findings then fall flat on their face.
The fact of the matter is that The Shift’s reports have led the Principal Permanent Secretary to publish salaries for the past 12 years (something that should be public to begin with).
On top of that, it led to the Commissioner for Public Standards launching an investigation on asset declarations with the aim of improving the system that is an essential tool in democracy to scrutinise corruption.
“My conclusions and recommendations will be set out in the relevant reports, which will be issued once my investigations are concluded,” the Commissioner told The Shift.
Cutajar makes a bold assertion in her article that is fundamentally wrong. She states that “it is obvious” that the doubling of Parliamentary Secretaries’ declared income between 2017 (election year) and 2018 was because they declared their income from when they were appointed (half way through the year).
Cutajar has been in office for only a few months, and she has never had to fill in an asset declaration form. She won’t have to fill in the Maltese version either, because she’s an MEP. If this will be her approach to the asset declarations form she is expected to submit in Brussels, then she’s in for a surprise.
Her reasons for wading into a subject she is unfamiliar with and which does not involve her rank is a question that is for her to address. But she should have at least read the Maltese asset declaration form before putting her foot in it.
At the top of every asset declaration form is this paragraph (an excerpt from the Cabinet Manual of Procedure) that lays down the rules for its submission:
“Within two months of being appointed and by no later than March of each year, every Minister [including Parliamentary Secretaries] must send to the Cabinet secretary an asset declaration form that lists: a) immovable property that belongs to the Minister [or Parliamentary Secretary] or on which he has a title, b) shares, bonds or other investments that he may have in companies or partnerships, public or private, c) the total sum held in bank accounts and any other type of financial interests, d) directorship roles or any other roles in commercial companies, Boards, cooperative societies public or private, e) his earnings the previous year, f) the total sum of loans received that have not yet been repaid.”
The form refers to the need to declare “earnings in the previous year”, let alone the first six months of the year. And it is not stated anywhere that income should only refer to the ministerial salary – on the contrary, the form is specific in stating ALL income must be declared. In fact, some declare their income from investments or university positions and other appointments in addition to their ministerial salary.
In driving the message that this was all part of a plot, Cutajar followed the government narrative that made no distinction between what PN MP Jason Azzopardi stated and what The Shift actually reported.
Azzopardi stated that the salaries of Parliamentary Secretaries were doubled “by stealth”.
This is what The Shift said in its two separate reports on the individual declarations by Parliamentary Secretaries Silvio Schembri and Deo Debattista:
It was independent candidate Arnold Cassola who wrote to the Commissioner to launch an investigation. In comments to The Shift, George Hyzler confirmed his office would be addressing the issue as the current format of asset declarations deserved scrutiny.
The analysis of individual asset declarations over seven years done by The Shift clearly showed that Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries were evidently less than forthright in declaring assets and income. They even collectively “forgot” to table their declarations in Parliament altogether in 2017 (for the year 2016).
The analysis also clearly showed that salaries had increased over time, and nobody could understand why. Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar was quick to hold a press briefing to which The Shift was not invited. Predictably, reports in the press followed that led with the government line that “salaries had not increased since 2013”.
But even the chart that the Principal Permanent Secretary distributed to selected members of the press showed that salaries had increased since 2013, leading to bizarre explanations and comparisons with 2008 (why not 2006 or 2007?).
Worse, as the press probed the asset declarations further they all came up with the same conclusion: ‘erm, but we can’t explain the allowances’. We were not surprised.
We are used to this. When The Shift revealed the White Flag scam and the government members involved, the reaction reported was that “this was all a plot against the government”.
When we revealed the corruption in the Vitals Global Healthcare deal, three Ministers reacted to a magisterial decree that they should be under criminal investigation with personal attacks despite the reports being backed by court and company documents.
When we reported on illicit activity at massage parlours and the mayhem created when Chris Cardona decided in 2016 that they did not need regulating, we were told that the ‘holier than thou’ were making a mountain out of a molehill, only for the government to now propose legislation after the decision led to both human trafficking concerns and “a health epidemic”.
On this too, we will be proven right. But that’s not the point. The point is that the public deserves, and now it will get, a more transparent asset declarations process that will improve accountability.
Stay tuned for the next installment in the investigation “Cover your Assets”
Editorial note: The Shift is currently considering suing for libel on the defamatory allegations contained in Josianne Cutajar’s article published in Labour newspaper Kullħadd. This article published by The Shift only addresses Cutajar’s treatment of facts and not her libellous allegations.