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A dirty bill of health

No well-governed country is immune from corruption. Normally, however, the discovery of corruption leads to a strengthening of the system. Checks and balances are reviewed. Loopholes are closed. More layers of security are added.

And if even shaky evidence of corruption surfaces, a full police investigation is welcomed by the government. The system calls for a clean bill of health. Well, normally.

It hasn’t happened in the case of Vitals Global Healthcare – the shadowy set-up, with no experience of healthcare, given charge of three Maltese hospitals. Journalistic investigations, by more than one media organisation, have turned up evidence that suggests wrongdoing.

But the government hasn’t reacted by strengthening our anti-corruption guards. It has actually weakened them.

Here’s a quick review of matters as they stood until last week, before a new investigation by The Shift added important detail. The evidence is all based on documentation, which includes meticulous tracing of a trail of secret companies in offshore jurisdictions.

Vitals was awarded a contract after a public call, yet somehow had signed a memorandum of understanding with the government before the public call was even issued.

Vitals then proceeded to pocket tens of millions of taxpayers’ money. It did nothing except pocket our millions.

What the (then) unknown owners of Vitals did do was use their decision-making power to commit the hospitals to buy supplies only from certain companies – which they bought using our own money. They boasted of their “experience” in Malta to attempt to take over hospitals in several other countries.

Finally, they sold their concession for only one euro to Steward Healthcare, which took over all their obligations.

Last week’s report by The Shift focused on a hidden investor, Shaukat Ali Abdul Ghafoor, a Pakistani with a Maltese passport and background that includes Gaddafi’s Libya.

He had been named before by The Shift. This time the focus was on an offshore company in Jersey, linked to a chain of companies involved in the Vitals deal. It was set up three years ago and closed three months ago. The indications are that the company was set up to receive secret payments and then shut down.

Here is a further strong suggestion of corrupt intent in the Vitals deal. The details are dizzying because they’re meant to induce vertigo in anyone seeking to follow the trail.

Then there is the figure of Shaukat Ali Abdul Ghafoor himself. Once he was named, background checks could have been run by any self-respecting government and police force. There should have been enough room for pause.

What kind of investor would enter healthcare with no experience, make no attempt to acquire any experience in the first country that grants him that opportunity, and yet promote himself as having that experience with other countries?

I’m only asking because the police apparently haven’t. Meanwhile, the government has reacted by defending the deal, denying access to documentation it has, and accusing journalists of not having court-grade evidence.

Here’s a challenge to the government and its apologists: Name one liberal democracy where journalists are expected to provide court-grade proof as the fruit of any investigation.

There are none. It’s part of good governance that journalists keep police-work and the courts at arm’s length. Otherwise the media would be a collection of several private police forces with dangerous powers.

So when ministers and a judge insist on court-grade proof from journalists, that’s not just resistance to a police or magisterial investigation. It’s actually weakening the anti-corruption system.

There’s a distortion of who is responsible for what. Journalists are claimed to have a responsiblity that they do not have. If they did have it, it would amount to institutional perversion.

Finally, all these claims could serve as precedents when future claims of corruption arise. If the government had its way with the Vitals case, it would set a perverse standard for how all future cases are handled. Even if there is nothing actually corrupt about the Vitals deal, what the government wants will make it easier for the corrupt to get away in the future.

The Council of Europe (CoE) has named the Vitals case as exemplifying the problems with Malta’s rule of law. That’s not because it unquestioningly believes the journalists. It’s because the CoE knows that a well-governed country would react to a journalistic investigation by conducting its own formal police investigations, with the government welcoming any opportunity to strengthen the system and give it a clean bill of health.

The CoE is voicing its concerns about Malta’s rule of law because it believes the government is sincere – that is, sincerely avoiding doing what any other government, committed to rule of law, would do.

Read what The Shift revealed in ‘The big pay off: A key hidden investor in Vitals Global Healthcare’

Government mum on Malta’s failure to sign global media freedom pledge

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