Oops, he did it again.
Joseph Muscat’s been found guilty of yet another blatant ethics violation, this time for using Labour thugs to detain journalists after a press conference during the country’s most heated political crisis.
The report of the Standards Commissioner was blunt in its condemnation of both the former prime minister’s responsibility and his failure to hold his minions accountable.
“The assignment of Party loyalists as unofficial security personnel is at best incorrect and abusive,” the report states. “This is a serious issue that calls into question the institutional integrity of Maltese government and the separation that should exist between State and Party.”
Given the sheer number of ‘persons of trust’ infesting every Ministry and public entity, one could be forgiven for thinking the Party in power is the State.
But we’ll set aside the need for an institutional de-lousing for now.
The Commissioner was making a point about thugs and comparing Muscat’s actions to the political violence perpetrated by his predecessors in the 1980s.
He wrote, “The recourse by members of government to individuals who are known party loyalists whenever political unrest arises is, in my view, a relic of the distant past and which could have fuelled the political unrest at the time, even further.”
In other words, save the Party loyalists for the counting house. They have no place acting as unofficial ‘security’ in Castille, which can draw on the Armed Forces if needed.
Hyzler also expressed his dismay at the way Muscat washed his hands of the matter.
The Commissioner noted that, given the heated nature of the turmoil engulfing the country, “one would expect then-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to acknowledge that his staff acted incorrectly, to inquire as to who was responsible, to hold them accountable for their actions, and to ensure that such actions would not reoccur. Instead, he claimed that the journalists were asked to wait until ministers had left the room, and that “steps were taken” to remedy the situation – claims that are contradicted by the evidence.”
As usual, the leader that activists compared to a mob boss first condoned the actions of his thugs and then lied through his teeth about them.
The Standards Commissioner ran that move by the Code of Ethics too, and found that “an attempt by a Minister to justify the actions of his or her staff and to brush off the incident and to condone it through statements that are contradicted by the facts is not acceptable conduct.”
Great. The facts were clearly established, and Hyzler ruled that Joseph Muscat was indeed responsible.
He’s going to be held accountable, right?
Not so fast, pilgrim. There’s a little matter of precedent to contend with.
You see, issues like this have arisen before, and the Commissioner knows it.
Speaker of the House Anglu Farrugia ruled on 11 January 2021 that consequences — dealt with in article 28 of the Standards in Public Life Act — don’t apply to persons who are no longer MPs.
Hyzler sought legal advice on Farrugia’s ruling, and it should come as no surprise that counsel found it preposterous.
Henri Mizzi of Camilleri Preziosi Advocates told the Commissioner that, “even where a person has resigned or otherwise been removed from his position as a person of trust, he may still be investigated by the Commissioner for any allegation concerning statutory or ethical breaches that he may have committed during the tenure of his post as a person of trust.” To interpret the law in a contrary sense “would make a mockery of it”.
Unfortunately, dear citizen, the laugh is on you.
Hyzler knew that Muscat’s willing apologists would attempt to bury his latest ruling. That’s why he recommended the Parliamentary Committee for Standards in Public Life publish his report in full.
The Committee disagreed, voting to suppress the report on the grounds that Hyzler shouldn’t have been investigating the case in the first place since it was already the subject of a police investigation and court proceedings.
I wonder if the learned members of parliament even read it? That very objection was examined and dismissed on pages 2, 3 and 4 of the report.
Hyzler would go on to chide Farrugia in a separate note, where he pointed out that the Speaker of the House has power over proceedings in parliament — including the right to give a casting vote — but he does not have the power to interpret the law or to issue rulings that are binding on the Standards Commissioner.
Anyway, their attempt to bury the truth was thwarted by the press decided to publish the document in the public interest.
As for Joseph Muscat, he walked away from the consequences of his actions yet again.
It wasn’t the first time Joseph Muscat was found to have crossed ethical lines.
The Standards Commissioner previously ruled that Muscat shouldn’t have accepted expensive bottles of wine from Yorgen Fenech, noting that, “Muscat should have shown better judgement when he himself invited Yorgen Fenech to a private and exclusive party and accepted gifts from him”.
Muscat claimed the conclusions were based on “perceptions rather than facts”. And besides, previous PN administrations accepted inappropriate gifts, too.
Okay, not from the owner of 17 Black, a man accused of brutally murdering the journalist the former prime minister described as “one of my harshest critics” in order to silence her stories. But Muscat insisted that by resigning — or more accurately, by been driven from office — he had “assumed all my responsibilities”.
The parliamentary committee tasked with imposing consequences for ethics violations decided to interpret his unrepentant letter as an apology and consider the case closed.
The Standards Commissioner also gave Muscat a very stern scolding for inviting some media houses but not others to his press conferences. As an elected official, he had a responsibility to send the same invitations to all media houses — even those who might insist on asking questions the embattled prime minister didn’t want to answer.
He was also found guilty of ethical breaches in a separate case when he ordered an €80,000 going away gift for Konrad Mizzi.
In both of those cases, the response was a collective shrug. What could they do? Muscat had already resigned by the time the Commissioner made his ruling. He was untouchable because he’s no longer an MP.
Guilty but not accountable. How’s that for doublethink?
By this logic, Konrad Mizzi isn’t responsible for the dodgy deals he signed while he was a Cabinet Minister, either.
Why not? He had to resign, of course! Cue the sad trombones. Poor Kon Man ‘paid the political price’.
Let’s dispense with this tired smokescreen straight away.
‘Paying the political price’ doesn’t mean anything beyond the fact that the person in question messed up at work and had to quit or was fired.
In the normal world beyond Malta, removing someone from a position where they can do more dodgy things, or destroy the evidence of their earlier deeds, is just the first step. Damage control has to be followed by accountability.
Don’t expect the Standards Commissioner to be of any help here. Hyzler’s long, meticulous reports are worthless as long as the Committee for Standards in Public Life refuses to impose real consequences.
The Committee is made up of two Labour MPs and two Nationalist MPs, with Speaker of the House Anglu Farrugia as chairperson and tiebreaker in the event of a deadlocked vote.
I wouldn’t expect Farrugia to put your interests above those of the disgraced former prime minister and his accomplices. Farrugia blatantly violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in order to keep MPs tax declarations from being duly released to The Shift.
It looks like someone wasn’t happy with our Cover Your Assets investigation into their previous declarations. And no wonder. The deliberate holes in those hand-scrawled one-pagers made Swiss cheese look solid.
“The institutions are working” for them, not you.
It’s time to hold Joseph Muscat accountable for the mess he created. Robert Abela’s promise of “continuity” has already led to more of the same.