Joseph Muscat’s acceptance of a €21,000 gift from an unknown individual to travel First Class to Dubai, as well as the fact that he lied about it, is a clear breach of ethics, lawyers have told The Shift.
Standards Commissioner George Hyzler on Friday confirmed a report by The Shift published in January that the tickets were purchased in Jordan, but concluded it was not a breach of ethics since the law was narrowly defined to those who could affect legislation.
Muscat was still Prime Minister at the time when the trip was made, although he had announced his decision to resign after months of protests. Hyzler’s conclusion has left lawyers baffled.
Edward Debono told The Shift Hyzler’s decision does not make sense. “Joseph Muscat was Prime Minister and is still a member of parliament. It’s obvious that in this case there was a breach of code of ethics. No doubt about it.”
Debono said it was unacceptable for an MP to be in the “pockets of foreign businessmen”.
Veteran lawyer Franco Vassallo also said the report by the Standards Commissioner was worrying. “The fact that Joseph Muscat lied is, in itself, already a breach of ethics,” he explained.
Lawyer Philip Manduca told The Shift that section 8.4 of the Code of Ethics puts an even larger obligation on the Prime Minister not to accept any gifts from anyone who might place him under obligation.
The issue was compared to Yorgen Fenech gifting Muscat three bottles of expensive wine. Fenech is currently facing charges in court related to the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
“So on the gift of three bottles of wine worth €5,800 by Yorgen Fenech, the Commissioner for Standards finds prima facie breach of ethics, but finds no issue with a gift of €21,000? How does that work?” Debono added.
The individual who forked out the money, as well as the purpose of the trip, remains unknown – at Muscat’s request.
The Standards Commissioner said Muscat had given all the details about the trip and who paid for it. He said in his report that he was satisfied with Muscat’s explanation and found no evidence to contradict his explanation.
Debono disagreed with the Commissioner’s decision not to divulge the name of the person or entity who paid for this trip. “The public deserves to know and we need to have this information public.”
Echoing the general sentiment on social media, Debono questioned who would be willing to pay for a €21,000 gift without expecting anything in return.
“Let me be clear, I do not question George Hyzler’s integrity. I trust him completely. The issue is if the law allows him to take such a decision, then it doesn’t make sense.”
In his report, Hyzler noted that Muscat relinquished his position as Prime Minister two weeks after the Dubai trip.
“It could perhaps be argued that Dr Muscat would have been better advised to postpone the trip until he effectively resigned his position as Head of government. However, he claims that this could not be postponed and, in any event, the complaint does not rely on the timing of the trip,” Hyzler concluded in the report.
Referring to the code of ethics, Manduca said it placed a greater obligation on the Prime Minister not to accept gifts. “I would feel naturally obliged towards someone who gives me €21,000 tickets to Dubai. But, having said that, I trust George Hyzler and I do not have the information he was presented with.”
According to the code of ethics for Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries, “no Minister shall accept gifts, donations, hospitality or service from anyone that may place him under an obligation towards such person or persons and this shall also apply to immediate family members of the Minister”.
In the case of representatives of members of the House of Representatives, the code states that “a member of the House of Representatives who has made a visit outside Malta, financed in whole or in part by one person, group or company which has a direct interest in legislation before the House, shall declare the fact in a register purposely kept by the Speaker, and accessible to the public”.
Debono pointed out that although Muscat was on his way out, he is still a Politically Exposed Person for a period of time in the future. “What the people want is an open, transparent government and that’s why all the information should be public”.