Regulations exist on paper, but laws are only as good as the people empowered to enforce them.
We saw it play out again this week when the OPM was found guilty of an ethics breach for holding journalists against their will in Castille after the famous late night Cabinet meeting of December 2019.
Unfortunately, another scolding from the Standards Commissioner won’t make the shameless feel shame. Besides, the Court already decided that three of the men who did the detaining wouldn’t be held responsible for the actions we all watched on video that same night, thanks to a botched police investigation.
Now, I realise you may be confused. How can someone be simultaneously guilty and innocent of the same offence?
It’s really quite simple.
An institution — the OPM — was scolded for a ‘breach in ethics’, but the people who carried out the breach on behalf of the OPM couldn’t be held responsible for it.
In fact, one of the transgressors was actually rewarded.
Nigel Vella, formerly a member of Joseph Muscat’s private secretariat, was present when Labour thugs detained journalists. The board of the public inquiry wasn’t convinced by his non-account of those events, either, warning “We’re troubled by your lack of credibility”.
His memory issues also cast doubts on his competence, prompting Judge Michael Mallia to ask, “Why are you paid if you gave no input? How is it possible that you were between four walls, and you heard nothing?”
But Vella’s contributions must have earned the confidence of someone at Castille. He’s now holding three full time government jobs with a combined remuneration of some €90,000 per year.
A similar story played out when Standards Commissioner George Hyzler ruled that Joseph Muscat had abused his power in giving a bloated €90,000 consulting contract to Konrad Mizzi right before he was driven from office. You’d expect that to carry some consequences, but you would be mistaken. The Speaker of the House decided Muscat couldn’t be held responsible for his actions because he was no longer an MP.
The man was in breach, but the role he occupied can’t be held responsible for those actions because Muscat’s no longer in it.
It’s a bit like holding a suit of clothing responsible for robbing a bank.
The system doesn’t even work in more clear cut cases. The transgression might be obvious but the consequences are always elusive, either because the sanctioning body won’t sanction, or the Standards Commissioner can’t enforce the paper standards.
When Hyzler ruled that Muscat had crossed ethical bounds by accepting wine worth thousands from murder suspect Yorgen Fenech, the former prime minister brushed it off as just a “perception”. There weren’t any consequences tied to the Commissioner’s ruling.
By some odd line of reasoning, Hyzler wasn’t concerned that Muscat slipped off to Dubai with his family in the midst of the country’s worst political crisis, using first class air tickets worth €21,000 that had been purchased from Jordan.
Muscat was still prime minister at the time, and he had claimed the tickets were bought with “personal funds”. It was The Shift that revealed the tickets had been paid by a third party in Jordan.
Anyway, the Standards Commissioner wants you to know that he took a careful look at the letter of the law and — technically — Muscat wasn’t in breach of it.
“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,” Hyzler wrote. “However, he claims that this could not be postponed and, in any event, the complaint does not rely on the timing of the trip.”
We’re not sure what was so pressing about this three-day “family holiday” that Muscat couldn’t wait two weeks. But I suppose traveling as a prime minister with a diplomatic passport was just so much easier.
The former Kink wasn’t the only one to get a toothless scolding for breaching the Standards in Public Life Act.
Hyzler ruled that Silvio Schembri made inappropriate use of public resources by filling a DOI press release with partisan cheap shots, but he closed the case because Schembri issued a vapid non-apology and said he’d try not to do it again.
I guess this should have come as no surprise. Schembri wasn’t held accountable for promoting his official ministerial work on his personal social media page, either. But why should he be? The rest of the Cabinet was doing it too.
When Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli appeared in a private firm’s video pimping the sale of Maltese passports, the Standard’s Commissioner said politicians mustn’t give unfair advantage to private businesses, but he dismissed the minister’s actions as “lack of thought” rather than bad faith. In other words, not knowing how to do one’s job was no reason for dismissal from it.
When Transport Minister Ian Borg swore on live TV and then lied about it, the Standards Commissioner let it slide because, well, he just lost his temper when being interview on his own Party’s television station.
“The words slipped out of his mouth in the heat of the moment,” Hyzler said. “I don’t want to give the impression that swear words are acceptable but…” swear words are clearly acceptable.
Lying about it was okay, too. Borg never did admit to swearing, despite the recording. Instead, he accused the Opposition of maliciously editing the tape. It was all a plot against him, you see.
Unfortunately, Hyzler isn’t the only public official entrusted with defending your interests who seems unable or unwilling to fulfil that duty.
The Attorney General advised the police not to seize evidence from corrupt accounting firm Nexia BT, and “tread carefully” when investigating and charging the Panama Papers Two.
Former Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar sat on the files with a level of determination to do nothing that was exceeded only by Edward Scicluna’s effort not to see anything going on with VGH and Electrogas.
And the MFSA and FIAU did nothing to rein in Pilatus Bank.
The only semblance of personal responsibility we’ve seen in the past seven years is a handful of temporary resignations, where those forced out bide their time in the wilderness with lucrative direct orders that put cash in the bank until they can get their hands on another executive job.
Even those who were finally driven from power in disgrace — Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri — haven’t faced any consequences for their actions.
Despite what Muscat might claim about “shouldering political responsibility”, the only possible consequence of crime is prosecution. Not an endless series of catch and release arrests, or an eternal magisterial inquiry. Prosecution in a court of law.
That’s as far away now as it was in October 2017.
There’s no such thing as accountability without consequences — and there won’t be accountability in Malta until the people demand it.