Until 2013, former Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono was considered the undisputed ‘political queen’ of Gozo and consistently the most popular PN electoral candidate after her Party’s leader, garnering thousands of first count votes in every election she contested.
Though super popular among the majority of Gozitans, including many Labour voters, she was loathed by Labour and rival candidates in her own Party, accusing her of running the island like a personal fiefdom, dishing out favours in exchange for votes. With her in power, Labour realised that they could never turn Gozo ‘red’ and disparagingly referred to her as ‘Santa Debono’.
Once in power and following a ‘confession’ by a contractor from Gharb, Joe Cauchi, known as ‘Sansun’, the government rushed to give him whistleblower protection – a pardon for his criminal actions – and the police accused Anthony Debono – Giovanna’s husband – with abuse of power and conducting private works with government funds, among a number of other criminal charges.
Politically, this led to the end of Giovanna Debono’s career, as she immediately resigned from the PN parliamentary group and did not contest the following election, in which the Labour Party succeeding in winning the 13th district for the first time since Independence.
Yesterday, six years later, the court ruled that none of the charges against the Minister’s husband could be proven and absolved him of any wrongdoing. Magistrate Neville Camilleri slammed both the whistleblower and the police for their ‘false’ accusations.
While the government rushed to grant Cauchi whistleblower status, the government has never granted whistleblower status to any other individual, denying requests by others, like former FIAU official Jonathan Ferris, to reveal what they know about government corruption.
What led to the accusations against Anthony Debono?
In March 2015, contractor Joe Cauchi approached the Gozo Ministry stating that he was owed tens of thousands for work he did for the Ministry under the former PN administration. He claimed that he had done the work on the instructions of Anthony Debono – at the time Head of the Construction and Maintenance Department within the Gozo Ministry.
Cauchi claimed it was a works-for-votes scheme through which the Gozo Ministry conducted work for private citizens in exchange for votes.
The Gozo Ministry obtained a whistleblower certificate for Cauchi and asked the police, at the time led by Commissioner Michael Cassar, to investigate.
The police investigations were conducted by Inspector Ian Abdilla – later promoted several times to the grade of Deputy Commissioner – who based his case solely on Cauchi’s evidence and immediately charged Debono in court.
According to Joe Cauchi, who was assisted in court by lawyer Robert Abela, now prime minister, there were some 22 assignments mostly consisting of concrete ramps in rural roads and fields, levelling of roads with concrete, works on football pitches and dismantling and rebuilding of walls. Cauchi and the police claimed this work was carried out on private property between 2005 and 2013.
The Court established that none of the 22 assignments mentioned by Cauchi was related to private individuals or private property. The Court, through evidence presented by the Lands Department, established that all work was carried on public roads or public property.
The Court also expressed doubts about the veracity of Cauchi’s declarations on some of the work he claimed he had done.
Whistleblower was after money
In his 77-page judgment, Magistrate Neville Camilleri found that the only reason Cauchi had made the accusations was to seek payment of tens of thousands from the Gozo Ministry. The magistrate said it was evident that every time Cauchi approached the Ministry, including during the Labour administration, it was to ask for payments.
Cauchi told the police that he had also spoken to then PN leader Simon Busuttil, who sent him to the police as it was up to them to investigate any wrongdoing. Busuttil later accused Labour of bribing the whistleblower through contracts to destroy Giovanna Debono and her family.
Research conducted by The Shift shows that during the whole court process against Debono, ‘Sansun’ was awarded dozens of contracts by the Labour administration, mostly through direct orders.
Between 2013 and 2017, Cauchi or his company – Gozo Renovations Ltd – were given over €1 million in government contracts, mostly by the Foundation for Tomorrow Schools (FTS), a government agency.
In 2016, Cauchi sent an email to then Education Minister Evarist Bartolo thanking him as he “was never given so much work”, while asking him to return his canvasser, Edward Caruana – then a manager at FTS – back to Gozo.
“I would like to tell you that what happened in the last weeks (the removal of Caruana from Gozo) is very bad for the future of schools and our Labour Party,” he told the Minister.
This email was exhibited in court during ongoing procedures against Minister Bartolo’s canvasser – Edward Caruana – who in 2017 was accused of corruption related to public works at various schools.
Debono should have never been accused
In his sentence, Magistrate Camilleri said: “The Court is of the opinion that this case should have been investigated better by the police and the arraignment of the accused (Debono) facing serious criminal charged could have been avoided”.
“Although the Court agrees that it could have established guilt based on the declarations and testimony of just one witness, it does not necessarily mean that what the whistleblower declared in Court is necessarily the truth.”