A two-hour session of the standards in public life committee that was meant to lead to a decision on whether to adopt, reject or otherwise further investigate the report compiled by the standards commissioner on former parliamentary secretary Rosianne Cutajar’s involvement in a €3 million property sale remains inconclusive after the sitting adjourned to 4.30pm on Tuesday.
Throughout the sitting, the committee, composed of speaker Anġlu Farrugia, government MPs Glenn Bedingfield and Edward Zammit Lewis and opposition MPs Karol Aquilina and Therese Comodini Cachia, standards commissioner George Hyzler was once again fielding questions on his report on the matter.
Farrugia will be submitting his casting vote as the opposition voted in favour of adopting the report while government MPs voted against it while requesting further investigation.
Hyzler repeatedly insisted that he would not comment or refer to matters which were beyond his remit, stressing multiple times in this sitting as well as the previous one that his conclusion on Cutajar’s involvement in the deal as well as her failure to declare the proceeds obtained from the deal were the key points of focus.
Many of the questions revolved around specific details related to the evidence compiled by Hyzler, with particular reference to news reports about Charles ‘it-Tikka’ Farrugia’s decision to write a letter to the speaker claiming that he was going to regularise his position with tax authorities in spite of his insistence that the money awarded to him was not a brokerage fee but a payment granted ‘in buona gratia’.
Any other arrangements made by the MP or by Farrugia with the tax commissioner were not related to the ethics breach itself, Hyzler maintained, further arguing that he had given Cutajar ample time to provide proof that she had not participated in any way in the deal, however, the balance of probabilities weighed squarely against the evidence she had provided.
After Hyzler answered questions raised by all the members of the committee, the committee argued on whether to proceed with a motion filed by Aquilina to adopt the report.
The main bone of contention between the MPs on either side, that led to mutual accusations of attempting to influence the process for political gain, centred around Zammit Lewis’ insistence on getting Hyzler to write to the tax commissioner in order to obtain further information on how the tax authorities were handling both Farrugia’s claim as well as whether Cutajar had any pending tax arrangements.
While still present at the sitting, Hyzler maintained that when filing her declaration of assets, Cutajar could opt for disclosing any pending arrangements or decisions to settle outstanding or contested payments owed to inland revenue with his office, which the former junior minister had failed to do.
After Hyzler left the sitting, the argument degenerated into a shouting match that was inconclusive, with the speaker declaring that a break would be taken for further deliberation, followed by an abrupt suspension of the live feed.
Government MP and whip Glenn Bedingfield accused opposition MPs of showing up “prejudiced rather than prepared”, accusing them of having reached conclusions prematurely and of “being this arrogant without even being in government”.
While retorting that opposition MPs had come prepared after having thoroughly assessed the contents of the report as well as the commissioner’s assertions throughout the sittings held so far, Comodini Cachia in turn accused government MPs of being “interested in defending your colleagues, not the general public”.
At one point, Bedingfield even discredited a news report that Comodini Cachia highlighted, a report which suggests that Cabinet has already taken a position on Cutajar’s fate. Comodini Cachia argued that this contrasted with the reluctance of government repesentatives to take a decision.
“Don’t believe everything you read in the media,” Bedingfield quipped, with Comodini Cachia retorting that the government whip “had forgotten what it means to be a journalist in this country” and that he was “a former journalist criticising journalists”.
‘They referred to Farrugia as a pig’
The questions addressed to Hyzler throughout the sitting revolved around the chats presented to the commissioner by Cutajar, the affidavit filed by property seller Joseph Camilleri with notary and Labour MP Ian Castaldi Paris, the payments made to Farrugia and Cutajar and the lack of any legal case filed.
While government MPs kept coaxing Hyzler into repeating that he could not conclusively prove whether Cutajar had taken a cut from the deal, the commissioner emphasised that all the evidence, not just singular bits of information, indicated that she had.
One significant recurring question was related to Cutajar and Farrugia’s attempts to convince Yorgen Fenech as well as the seller to increase the percentage to be paid in brokerage fees.
Hyzler referred to how, on 27 August 2019, Fenech had passed on €31,000 to Cutajar who was meant to pass it on to Farrugia for his role in brokering the deal.
“On August 24, in Cutajar’s chat with Fenech, they were referring to Farrugia as a pig because he was not splitting money with her,” Hyzler stated.
Cutajar’s statement in the chat contrasts heavily with what was said by Farrugia himself towards the beginning of Hyzler’s investigation, when he claimed that the fee from Camilleri’s side had been upped to 3% to include an extra broker, later revealed to be Cutajar.
The standards commissioner’s investigation did not fully determine how Yorgen Fenech was convinced to increase the brokerage fee from his end beyond the fact that he had been convinced that money was going to Cutajar for her role. “It’s only thanks to you that he turned around some money,” Fenech had said in the chat.
“Two days after the chat, on 24 August, Fenech and Cutajar met at Busy Bee in Mrieħel so she could pass the money on to Farrugia,” Hyzler said.
Hyzler often found himself having to repeat arguments that he had drawn upon and maintained in the report, including his description of Castaldi Paris’ evasiveness when asked to confirm the existence of the affidavit filed by Camilleri.
Hyzler also maintained that Camilleri had not officially opened a legal case because he had been waiting for the standards commissioner to determine the outcome of the investigation as well as wanting to ensure that “all other options had been exhausted” before proceeding with such a case.