Keeping up appearances: new roles for familiar faces

Every time the Maltese government seemingly takes a step forward towards political responsibility and accountability, Prime Minister Robert Abela makes a decision that takes the country two steps back by keeping those closest to it in different positions of power.

There seems to be a common thread in all the chess moves made by the new prime minister concerning people in power who should be held accountable for their decisions and, possibly, face disciplinary action.

When caught out or faced with a public outcry, the government official is removed or steps down from their post, only to be reinstated to another position – again within the civil sector.

Justyne Caruana is the latest example of this. The former Gozo Minister resigned days after being sworn into Abela’s new Cabinet after it was revealed that her husband, former Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta, was close friends with Yorgen Fenech, the suspected mastermind in the brutal assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Court testimonies revealed that Valletta even passed on information to Fenech at a point in time when he was heading the murder investigation. Valletta was stepped out of the investigation only after a legal battle fought by Caruana Galizia’s family.

The public welcomed Abela’s decision to remove Caruana. This was, after all, one of the first – and few – signs of goodwill from the administration to regain some basic sense of normality in a country where allegations of corruption are the norm. But even that, it seems, was too much to ask.

Only a week after her resignation, Caruana was appointed chairperson of the Consideration of Bills Committee. Meanwhile, she’s also been busy applying for government tenders to supply her legal services.

This did not stop here.

Caruana recently announced on social media that she was appointed the first chairperson of a new Parliamentary Committee for Gozitan Affairs. Her new position was confirmed through a unanimous vote in parliament.

On top of all this, Caruana was given a €5,000 contract to provide legal consultancy services to San Vincenz de Paul related to human resources, protection of data, contracts and other legal issues.

On 16 March 2020, Justyne Caruana was awarded a Direct Order to provide “legal services” to St Vincent De Paule.

And she is not the only one. Former minister Konrad Mizzi – the owner of a secret Panama account – was given an €80,000 consultancy contract with the Malta Tourism Authority, which used to fall under his remit as a minister. This came about in December 2019 – less than one month after stepping down as minister following revelations into the Caruana Galizia murder investigation.

Mizzi would have gotten away with it had the deal remained concealed from the public. But following a huge outcry, new Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli then cited ‘legal advice’ to order the authority to terminate the contract.

In another move that was equally questioned and condemned by European institutions, the government had also appointed Mizzi as the Head of the Maltese delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The organisation’s representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir had spoken to The Shift about Mizz’s controversial nomination, saying it was “incomprehensible and disturbing”.

This controversial appointment led to civil society groups organising demonstrations outside parliament leaving the government with no choice but to make a U-turn on the decision.

Soon after he was sworn in, Abela took credit for removing Lawrence Cutajar from the role of police commissioner and promised to implement a new process that would choose the next commissioner in a transparent and consultative way.

Civil society organisations have demanded accountability, saying Cutajar had failed to conduct proper investigations into Pilatus Bank and protect Caruana Galizia for exposing criminal activities by those in government and failed to conduct proper investigations and questioning into the real suspects linked to Caruana Galizia’s assassination.

However, Cutajar was not held accountable for failing to step up to his duties as police commissioner but, instead, was given a consultancy contract.

With former Office of the Prime Minister official Neville Gafa’, the lines seem to be even more blurred. Always a controversial figure working away from the limelight, Gafa’ was removed from his post at OPM right after Abela’s appointment as Prime Minister. This move was welcomed by the public, who saw it as a sign of good things to come.

But it seems that his ties with Castille have not severed at all.

Gafa’s role under the Joseph Muscat administration had always been a mysterious one – especially because of the trips he made to Libya. It was only during his testimony before the public inquiry board investigating the death of Caruana Galizia that he proudly admitted he had saved thousands of lives of migrants by sending these back to Libya.

Although he was seemingly removed by Abela from Castille, Gafa’ recently said he coordinated the pushback of 51 migrants to Libya after OPM asked him to assist. The Prime Minister has claimed otherwise.

Abela denied the fact that Gafa coordinated any pushback and stated that Gafa’s role was to simply make contact but there was no promise of payment for the job.

                           
                               
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