Auditor General asked to investigate ‘ghost contract’ for Muscat’s pollster

Nicholas Wright, the pollster behind the Labour Party’s success in the electoral campaigns in 2013 and 2017, was given a three-year contract with the Planning Authority (PA) worth close to €120,000.

Yet, the Authority ‘cannot find’ the contract, invoices, receipts, or correspondence related to the direct order or any work products, leading to a request filed with the National Audit Office (NAO) to investigate.

Replying to a Freedom of Information request filed by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, the PA supplied a couple of invoices that reflected the quarterly amounts paid to Wright on a contract of €39,000 per year for three years. It said it couldn’t find the rest of the documents.

The Foundation had requested copies of correspondence with Wright, contracts or engagement letters with him, internal correspondence and minutes of internal meetings regarding his appointment, invoices he issued to the Authority, and any documents related to work he did in connection with the direct order issued to him.

The direct order for consultancy services was given to Wright on 23 November 2013, according to information tabled in parliament. That was only a few months after Wright had worked on the campaign that swept Joseph Muscat to power, a point that Wright has not failed to claim credit for on social media.

The PA’s failure to find basic documents any organisation is legally bound to keep has led to concern about the Authority’s reluctance to make the documents public, considering it was a hefty direct order to an individual who worked on Muscat’s electoral campaign given only months after the Labour Party’s success.

The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation filed a complaint with the Data Protection Commissioner, saying the information requested from the PA was in the public interest and related to the possible misuse of public funds surrounding the manner of appointment of and services provided by the contractor.

In its ruling on 4 May, the IDPC expressed “serious concerns” about the Authority’s record keeping practices, saying it is “not satisfied” with the way records are kept by the PA, that the facts of the case were “indeed worrying” and that it did “not augur well for accountability and transparency”.

Yet, the IDPC concluded that the PA had acted “correctly” in supplying what little it had.

The Foundation raised the point that other government entities, such as the Finance Ministry, may have copies of the contract, invoices and receipts. The CEO of Identity Malta, Jonathan Cardona, was also copied on the invoices – it is unclear why. But the Commissioner simply said this could not be confirmed, even though it is within his power to request the information.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, where a public authority has reason to believe that another authority may have the information requested then it is obliged to pass the request on.

The Freedom of Information Act is dead-letter law if information and documents ‘cannot be found’

The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation has therefore requested the National Audit Office (NAO) to investigate after it exhausted all other possible avenues since it first filed the Freedom of Information request in August last year.

“The contractor in question is Nicholas Wright and/or Sentio (a related company), who was a campaign worker for Joseph Muscat in his 2013 and 2017 electoral campaigns,” the foundation said in its request to the NAO.

The foundation stressed that the information provided in the reply to the Freedom of Information request was incomplete. The partial information they received clearly refers to other documents including other invoices, contracts and work products that, somehow, disappeared.

The reply to the FOI request included only a couple of invoices, while the contract and the rest of the documentation disappeared.

“Evidently, the information requested was lost, either deliberately or accidentally. This raises suspicion that a public appointment was used to embezzle funds in return for services in a political campaign,” the Foundation told the NAO.

Public authorities are obliged to retain all relevant information and documentation relating to their official activities for the timeframes stipulated by law. “The Freedom of Information Act is dead-letter law if information and documents ‘cannot be found’,” the foundation stressed.

The information requested was lost, either deliberately or accidentally. This raises suspicion that a public appointment was used to embezzle funds in return for services in a political campaign

The PA failed to identify which information or documents were not held, saying only it “could not confirm the existence or otherwise of the remaining documentation”.

Who is Nicholas Wright?

Nobody knew much about his involvement in the 2013 and 2017 electoral campaigns for the former prime minister. After the second victory – a snap election called in the midst of the Panama Papers scandal and a stream of FIAU reports leaked because the police were not acting on findings – Wright boasted of his involvement on social media, in his efforts to defend Muscat.

“There were a lot of ‘allegations’…but I don’t believe (nor does the majority apparently) that your prime minister is corrupt – far from it.”

That statement did not age well, as Muscat and his core team were forced to resign late last year following links to the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Muscat even earned the dubious title of  ‘2019 man of the year in organised crime and corruption’ from the widely respected OCCRP.

Wright openly mocked the late journalist, who was brutally assassinated by a car bomb in October 2017. “Daphne was neither impartial nor a journalist,” he said in August last year, even after the world recognised her contribution to journalism with an endless list of awards.

In 2017, he “did not have a dog in this fight” he said on social media referring to the general election, only to later say he did when replying to another tweet the following year: “If you mean two historic landslides, then yep. Couldn’t be prouder.”

Wright was involved in the Labour Party’s electoral success in two elections, by his own admission. Yet, in one of the documents made available in the Freedom of Information request, the PA justifies the direct order given to Wright, who is described as “an expert in the field of issues-based campaigns and focus opinion research”, on the basis of his ‘independence’.

“To ensure the independence of the study, MEPA (PA) has seeked (sic) to attain a foreign contributor to this study,” the PA said, completely ignoring Wright’s involvement in campaigns that won the Labour Party two general elections, presenting him instead as an unbiased foreigner.

Wright has denied receiving those amounts.

                           
                               
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