A partial review is worse than none at all

The investigation by Public Standards Commissioner George Hyzler into asset declarations by Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries published on Friday evening focused specifically on the claim that certain Parliamentary Secretaries’ income “doubled”.

It did not look into under-declarations of income or other findings highlighted by The Shift’s probe into declarations over seven years. This misses the point and defeats the scope of improving transparency and accountability.

The Commissioner addressed the specific request by former independent electoral candidate Arnold Cassola that focused on how the declared income of Parliamentary Secretaries increased from €40,000 to €60,000 in their declaration of assets since 2013 and why the government did not announce the increase.

Hyzler concluded in his report that the government statement that salaries had not increased since 2013 was incorrect and not factual, confirming The Shift’s assessment. He also concluded there was no basis to the claim made by PN MP Jason Azzopardi that the salaries of Parliamentary Secretaries had increased “by stealth”.

Hyzler specified in his report that his investigation was limited to the allegation that salaries had been secretly increased, and that he was not commenting on the veracity of declarations filed:

The background to this relates to one of the findings of The Shift’s series ‘Cover your Assets’. The probe into seven years of asset declarations showed that both Parliamentary Secretaries Silvio Schembri and Deo Debattista (specifically) declared an increase in income between 2017 and 2018 that showed they doubled their earnings. This is a factual statement based on their own declarations published in full.

The ‘Cover your Assets’ probe showed peaks that cannot be explained, families that live off the taxpayer gravy train and loans that defy incomes declared. In one year (for 2016), the declarations were not even filed in parliament, according to replies parliament sent to the press.

These were not addressed in the Public Standards Commissioner’s assessment.

They claim they earned nothing for six months

The government said that what seemed to be the doubling of income they declared in their salaries was because they were appointed halfway through the year in 2017. This was repeated by the Hyzler, but the argument is disingenuous.

Both Schembri and Debattista declared approximately €33,000 income from their parliamentary secretary roles in 2017 (as their sole source of income), and then approximately €61,000 from the same roles in 2018 (again as their sole source of income). Yet the asset declaration is for all income and assets for the entire year and not since their appointment to office.

Replying to questions from The Shift, the Public Standards Commissioner had referred to the text at the top of every asset declaration form that lays down the rules for its submission. It states the need for declarations to even include “earnings the previous year”.

The Public Standards Commissioner made no comment on why Parliamentary Secretaries had not declared these earnings.

The rules laid down in the asset declaration form filled in by Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries.

In this context, the only possible explanation for Schembri and Debattista is that either they earned absolutely no income for the first six months of 2017 or they omitted income from their asset declarations.

The argument that they both earned nothing for the first six months in the year does not reconcile with their engagements and roles beyond their duties as Parliamentary Secretaries. But Hyzler did not look into whether they under-declared their income.

In between the gaslighting, accusations of “fake news”, false controversy and hastily called press conferences, this pressing question has not been answered.

Hyzler did call out the government’s “fake news” press release, confirming it was both misleading and not factual because salaries did increase since 2013. The Commissioner concluded, “this was not done with malicious intent”. The report states he came to this conclusion after meetings with the Principal Permanent Secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister.

The Commissioner did not request further information on evidence of findings from The Shift. Neither did the Commissioner assess the meeting held between Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar and selected journalists after that misleading government statement. The Shift was excluded and unable to put questions to the government on its findings.  Questions sent to the government remain unanswered months later.

The public remains a pawn in a political battle

The government’s “fake news” press release said salaries had not changed since 2013. Yet, the Principal Permanent Secretary presented salaries to selected members of the press going back to 2008 despite the fact that it was the salaries covering different administrations that were being queried.

The information Cutajar presented at that press conference was meant to compare “blue” versus “red” and hark back to the “honoraria issue”, which dates back a decade. Should a supposedly apolitical public service Head be trying to score political points on a question in the public interest?

Should the Office of the Prime Minister be attacking a news outlet? Josef Caruana, who penned articles singling out individual journalists as “traitors” when the editor at Labour-leaning newspaper l-Orizzont, was rewarded with a job at the Prime Minister’s Office from where he continues to launch attacks against journalists and government critics.

In posts on social media, Caruana is demanding an apology from The Shift and a retraction of the story, which he will not be getting. He seems to forget that he is a public servant. He continues to post incendiary comments on social media attacking The Shift while fake accounts by trolls hound this news portal’s social media pages repeating the same message. It is a pattern ongoing since Glenn Bedingfield did the same to journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was then assassinated on 16 October 2017.

It serves to attack the press that dares to hold the government to account. It serves a climate of division and hate. It serves to distract from the fact that there are many unanswered questions on which the public deserves a reply.

The asset declarations do not reflect lifestyles

The Shift stands by the fact that the asset declaration forms of Schembri and Debattista submitted to parliament show an increase in salaries declared – this is not disputed because it is what they declared in their submissions. The discrepancy in income can then only be explained by under-declarations – an investigation the Public Standards Commissioner did not pursue.

It is the Standards Commissioner’s role to assess citizen’s access to information. It is also his role to ensure that what Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries submit to parliament meets obligations of transparency and accountability.

The asset declarations of Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries include no value for the properties listed, no details of shareholdings in companies (when the name is even correct), no names of banks (so a bank balance in Cyprus or Dubai would not show up) and no values of investments, while liabilities are limited to bank borrowings.

The Shift’s investigation has shown that Maltese asset declaration requirements are already low, but since 2015 the details of spouses’ assets and income have become ‘optional’.

The requirement for Cabinet members to make and publish asset declarations is an essential tool in a democracy to prevent corruption by helping to detect unjustified variations in wealth as well as to spotlight conflicts of interest.

The Standards Commissioner committed in May last year to look into the wider asset declarations including whether Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries were abiding by their obligations to declare all assets and income and how the system could be improved to increase transparency.

This analysis was compiled following consultation with policy and legal experts on the report released by Public Standards Commissioner George Hyzler on Friday evening.

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