At least four reinstated cabinet ministers are in line to pocket a second taxpayer-funded terminal benefits payment when they step down or are sacked from their current positions, having already received a substantial payment the first time they left government, The Shift has learned.
One former PN politician, Francis Zammit Dimech, has already helped himself to a double payment in this way, suggesting that others in similar positions may do the same.
According to data detailing payments made so far, obtained by The Shift, Edward Zammit Lewis, Michael Falzon, Anton Refalo and Justyne Caruana, all members of prime minister Robert Abela’s cabinet, were each paid tens of thousands of euros in terminal benefits when they were removed from their previous posts.
The payments were made despite the fact that all four were swiftly reinstated as ministers after a short stint on the backbench.
The undisclosed terms of the government’s unregulated terminal benefits scheme for politicians, introduced retroactively in 2012, and which the prime minister refuses to publish, are raising concerns about possible abuse, with reinstated cabinet members potentially eligible to take home two, or more, golden handshakes from state coffers.
Questions sent to the prime minister about the possibility that members of his cabinet might also end up getting a second terminal benefits payment, apparently allowed through the secret rules of the scheme, remained unanswered.
Abela, who last week spoke about the need for more respect to journalists and journalism, is also refusing to reply to questions on whether his ministers have been asked to return the generous terminal benefits payments after being reinstated as members of his cabinet.
What is happening?
According to the undisclosed rules, changed secretly twice by the Muscat administration, members of cabinet who are either not re-appointed, who resign or who are sacked, are eligible for a terminal benefit consisting of a month’s salary for every year served in office or a minimum of six months’ salary.
However, the available information suggests that while the scheme makes it clear that the golden handshake is to be given to those who terminate their position, it does not address what should happen when recipients of the payments are re-appointed.
This leaves the scheme vulnerable to individual interpretation, with some politicians opting to pay themselves twice.
The Zammit Dimech case
A seasoned politician and long-time minister in PN cabinets, Zammit Dimech was not re-appointed to the cabinet in 2008 when Lawrence Gonzi won the third successive election for the PN.
As established by the scheme, Zammit Dimech, together with others who were left out of Gonzi’s government, was awarded a golden handshake. In Zammit Dimech’s case, the sum was €32,000. He remained an MP on the government’s backbench.
However, four months before the 2013 election, with Gonzi dealing with internal turmoil due to his one-seat majority, Zammit Dimech was re-appointed minister (Foreign Affairs) for just 12 weeks.
Despite having already been paid a golden handshake in 2008, Zammit Dimech received a second payout – of €27,000 – in 2013, shortly after the election that returned Labour to government.
Four serving Ministers already paid golden handshakes
While previously, the re-appointment of former ministers to cabinet was a rare event – it only happened once during the PN’s entire 25 years in government – it’s become a regular occurrence during the Labour government’s eight years in power.
At least four current ministers in Robert Abela’s cabinet have been reappointed after having been removed and paid tens of thousands of euros in terminal benefits.
Current family affairs minister Michael Falzon, sacked by Joseph Muscat following the Gaffarena corruption debacle, was paid €26,000 in 2016 after being removed from cabinet.
His colleagues, agriculture minister Anton Refalo, justice minister Edward Zammit Lewis and education minister Justyne Caruana all received double-digit golden handshakes after they were forced out of cabinet or were not re-elected, as in the case of Zammit Lewis.
Despite having been re-appointed as ministers shortly after leaving their posts, less than a year, in the case of Justyne Caruana, the four have not returned the thousands paid by taxpayers in terminal benefits.
Asked by The Shift whether these four ministers will receive another golden handshake when they stop serving in cabinet again, Abela declined to reply.
The Shift has revealed that so far, taxpayers have paid €1.4 million in terminal benefits to government members.
This does not include some €30,000 which is expected to be paid to former parliamentary secretary Rosianne Cutajar, who was forced to resign over revelations about her dealings with Yorgen Fenech.
The Shift also revealed that disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat received a golden handshake of €120,000, three times the average of the rest of his colleagues.
Prime Minister Abela is refusing to give an account of how his predecessor’s terminal benefit was calculated or to publish the still secret amendments passed by cabinet, seemingly to the significant personal benefit of Muscat.