It’s the season of second waves. First, COVID-19; now, the return of scandals that first broke under Joseph Muscat.
Robert Abela must judge how long he can pretend Muscat isn’t at fault — before public opinion decides, in Muscat’s infamous words, that “those with power who do not fight corruption are themselves corrupt”.
A few months ago, Abela could parade Muscat as his economic consultant. What a different era. ‘Muscatonomics’ is now a byword for corruption, fraud and money laundering.
Lay aside the myriad crony appointments, dodgy planning permits and millions spent on direct orders. Remember the signature Muscat projects:
Electrogas, Vitals Global Healthcare, American University of Malta, Pilatus Bank, the Montenegro wind farm, the Streamcast Data Centre, passport sales through Henley and Partners, and the rampant construction under Wild West rules.
They are an ensemble of broken promises, secret agreements, millions skimmed at the taxpayer’s expense, and profits pocketed by familiar figures and sinister international shadows. They are projects that risked wrecking the Maltese economy, livelihoods and quality of life.
There is the €360 million of public money that guaranteed the Electrogas loan — and the €100 million that Steward Health Care, running three public hospitals, can pocket any time it wants.
That €100 million was secretly granted by Konrad Mizzi, after a court ruled there are grounds for an inquiry into the original hospital concession deal.
Then there is €50 million that taxpayers paid to Steward’s predecessor, Vitals Global Healthcare, a consortium of hidden individuals who promised to invest €200 million but, somehow, took our money without investing a cent.
And there is €40 million in excise tax billed to taxpayers to please the Electrogas shareholders.
While cronies hit the jackpot, there was the fleecing of companies that the Maltese government is bound to protect. Mizzi schemed for Enemalta to buy shares in a Montenegro wind farm — at three times what they had been worth two weeks previously. The difference went into Fenech’s secret company, 17 Black.
Mizzi embroiled Enemalta in a different scheme, the Streamcast Data Centre. Enemalta is still owed €500,000, by a scammer flagged in a report commissioned by Malta Enterprise that was ignored, while €300,000 are owed to Melita.
Streamcast promised to invest €75 million, but it didn’t materialise. How lucky were Brian Tonna and friends, who bought shares early and then cashed out before the bubble burst.
Thanks to Muscat’s pet projects, we were ripped off as taxpayers — and are still being ripped off as consumers. To Electrogas we are paying hand over fist above the market rates, one of the highest rates in Europe (net of tax). Vitals Global Healthcare sold its three-hospital concession for €1, though not before they bound the hospitals to use cronies as suppliers.
The Muscatonomic investor is often one hiding behind secret companies, or else has no relevant experience, or else has the trail that sets off everyone’s alarms. Yet, in the orbit of Mizzi and Keith Schembri that didn’t seem much of a problem. You’d think it was more of a credential.
The victim is not just the public in the abstract. The American University of Malta, the residents of the south were told, would ensure that tens of millions were pumped into the region’s economy. The AUM was the project of a Jordanian construction company with no experience in higher education — but it was offered (and almost got) ODZ land in Marsascala for a song. Today, AUM is a ghost institution; but it still clamours to expand its Cottonera premises, while the residents protest against the loss of vital public spaces.
The victims can be companies and entire industries, with many livelihoods at stake. Enemalta may have been drawn into evading tax owed to the Montenegro government — Enemalta’s international reputation is on the line. So is the reputation of our financial services, after Pilatus Bank.
On the line, too, is the national reputation, because our authorities sold Maltese citizenship and European passports to men wanted for financial crimes by authorities in the US, UK, Italy, Israel and Dubai.
The victims are also future generations. The Electrogas deal binds us for another 15 years. The VGH deal was for 30 years, with a view to extend to 99.
All this we know thanks to the Office of the Auditor General and investigative journalists. It’s likely more filth will be exposed. Other inquiries and investigations are proceeding, while the European Commission wants an investigation into the wind farm project.
How long can the prime minister pretend Muscat had nothing to do with projects associated with Mizzi and Schembri? Muscat was Schembri’s guarantor. And, in 2016, when retaining Mizzi as minister without portfolio, Muscat assured us that Mizzi would be working directly under him.
If Muscat’s fault was that he slept on the job, while the rest schemed, he would still be guilty of gross negligence. Today he says he has assumed responsibility for the sins of others. But his resignation as Prime Minister had little to do with most of these scandals — the details were not yet known.
The more details emerge, the more insistent the questions. How long can Abela distance himself from Mizzi and Schembri, while saying Muscat is blameless? How can he protect Muscat without further damaging Malta’s reputation?
And how long can he ignore the stench and embrace Muscat, without the stench sticking to him?