Malta’s former top government fisheries official, Andreina Fenech Farrugia, who was suspended on full pay in February 2019 on serious corruption allegations, is still drawing a full salary from government coffers although she was never reinstated as Fisheries Director General. No charges were ever brought against her by the police.
Fenech Farrugia was suspended after claims in the Spanish media that she was taking bribes from Jose’ Fuentes, one of the owners of the largest tuna ranchers in the Mediterranean – Spanish Riccardo Fuentes e Hijos SA.
Sources close to the Fisheries Ministry confirmed to The Shift that Fenech Farrugia, nicknamed “the boss” by Fuentes in a series of telephone conversations tapped by the Spanish police, is still listed as a DG at the ministry, although she hasn’t been to work for two and a half years.
“Fenech Farrugia was suspended by then Minister Jose’ Hererra just a few hours after the corruption and bribery allegations were made by the Spanish newspapers. She is still on our books and receiving a full salary even though she has never set foot at the ministry since her suspension,” a senior government official told The Shift.
“To be fair, despite the quick decision by the government, clearly pushed by the local tuna lobby group, no charges were ever brought against Fenech Farrugia and a criminal magisterial inquiry by Magistrate Gabriella Vella was never concluded,” the official said.
Asked to give The Shift an update on the case of Fenech Farrugia and confirm whether the former tuna boss is still receiving her government salary, the ministry, now under the remit of Gozitan Minister Anton Refalo, failed to respond.
As well, neither the government nor the ministry’s permanent secretary Sharlo Camilleri have replied to questions about the criminal magisterial inquiry on the case and its conclusions.
Fenech Farrugia, who comes from Gozo, has not, so far, taken any legal action against the government, which raises questions about the possibility of some form of unwritten agreement between the two sides.
Fenech Farrugia and Operation Tarantelo
Friendly contacts between Fenech Farrugia and Jose’ Fuentes made the headlines – first in Spain, then in Malta – in February 2019 as part of the revelations arising from Operation Tarantelo, a probe that unveiled a web of illicit tuna trading between Malta and Spain worth some €12.5 million.
Operation Tarantelo led to the arrest of some 75 Spain-based tuna industry operators and the confiscation of an estimated €2.5 million kilograms of tuna. It was followed by a criminal process in front of a Madrid court, which is still ongoing.
During the investigation, the Spanish police, through the help of Europol and other police authorities across the EU, gained access to a number of telephone conversations between Fenech Farrugia and Fuentes, during which the Gozitan director general was allegedly arranging permits and business for the Fuentes in exchange for bribes.
Fenech Farrugia denies the claims but has never pushed to clear her name through a judicial process. It is not known that she ever took any legal action against the allegations made.
Excerpts from telephone conversations between Fenech Farrugia and Fuentes also revealed a close link between the two, which went beyond a professional relationship.
Fuentes – the main shareholder in Malta-based tuna ranching operation Mare Blue tuna farm, habitually referred to the director general as “gorgeous” and the pair would meet privately at his hotel when he was in Malta to attend business meetings.
In one taped conversation, on June 18, 2018, Fenech Farrugia is recorded telling Fuentes: “I am in Bulgaria only for you. You have to pay me, there’s a meeting with the General in Brussels to fix things”.
At the time, as part of the tuna trade, ranchers depended on quotas set by the European Commission.
Tuna lobby’s subdued interest
At the time of Fenech Farrugia’s suspension and the news from Spain on the alleged corrupt tuna racket, the Maltese tuna ranchers’ lobby group, which excluded Fuentes’ operation, publicly pushed for the suspension of the then director general.
The lobby group – known as Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers – had just recruited Charlon Gouder – Herrera’s former private secretary and Labour journalist – as its CEO, reimbursed with an alleged €100,000 financial package.
Gouder – who up to a few weeks earlier had been serving as Herrera’s consultant on fisheries – praised the minister’s decision to suspend Fenech Farrugia just a few hours after the publication of the Spanish claims.
Since then, Gouder and the federation have made no further reference to the case.
A year later, through a company set up by local tuna ranchers, Gouder was made director of Aquaculture Resources Ltd – a new legal structure for the lobby group – together with lawyer John Refalo. The company is owned by Charles Azzopardi, Salvu Ellul ‘ta’ l-Elbros’ and Joseph Caruana of Fish and Fish Ltd.
Fuentes’ Maltese tuna ranch, Mare Blue – which he owns with John and Massimo Cappitta – does not form part of the group.
All Maltese tuna ranches, including Mare Blue, are still operating regularly in the international tuna industry.
A few days ago The Shift revealed that Charlon Gouder – a lawyer by profession with clients such as disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat– has also been given a new phantom job by Herrera.