Shamed and humiliated former EU commissioner John Dalli is finally to be charged in court over accusations that he tried to use his privileged position to enrich himself. Police chief Angelo Gafa, the investigator who first recommended Dalli be charged, has bestirred himself at last and, if reports are correct, proceedings should begin this week.
But the delay in bringing this move forward, the foot-dragging reluctance to act earlier despite having been in charge for almost a year and a half, means there’s no euphoria yet in hearing that yet another of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s bête noires is to be brought down.
It’s been almost nine years since I sat in the London newsroom where I then worked and read the flashing headlines that John Dalli, Malta’s then EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, had been forced to resign on accusations of corruption and soliciting a multi-million euro bribe.
Up to then, Malta had been seen as a small, but reliable member of the EU, something of a high-flyer after its success in averting the worst of the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. The only EU country, indeed, that did not go into recession as a result of it.
And suddenly here we were. The news wires lighting up with scandal as the European media reported the ousting of Malta’s representative on the Commission. The descriptions of the clumsy, ham-fisted attempt to squeeze ‘snus’ producer Swedish Match to pay Dalli a €60 million bribe to help change European laws restricting the sale of chewing tobacco currently legal only in Sweden, were as astonishing as they were embarrassing.
In typical Maltese political-sleaze style, Dalli’s ‘canvasser’ Silvio Zammit allegedly tried to broker bribes by ringing people up and demanding money. There’s an actual recording of one of these alleged extortion attempts, in which Zammit asks a tobacco lobyyist from ESTOC for €10 million. The woman is so shocked, she tells Zammit she’s “almost lying down”.
The stupidity of it, quite apart from the criminality, is enough to make one want to bang one’s head against a wall. Of course, this brazen and outrageous attempt failed: Swedish Match turned directly to the European Commission and reported it.
Dalli was asked to resign, or be sacked, after investigators from the EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, found enough evidence to report that it believed Dalli to have known about Zammit’s efforts. The evidence was handed over to the Maltese police, and Dalli was set to be arrested, interrogated and charged as soon as he returned to Malta.
Except Dalli developed a mystery illness that necessitated a trip to the gynaecologist (yes, really) who wrote him a sick note excusing him from participating. In fact, Dalli continued to hide out in Brussels until after the 2013 general elections that brought disgraced prime minister Joseph Muscat to power.
Quick switch of police commissioners, a reassuring call to Joseph Muscat, and hey ho, Dalli’s feminine side was cured, and he returned to Malta.
The connection between the two crooks, hitherto on opposite sides of the political divide, is yet another chilling example of the way politicians in Malta are rarely what they seem, making unholy alliances with each other, and anyone with money, to extract whatever they can for themselves, whether it be money or power.
This failed politician is one of former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi’s biggest miscalculations. The idea of sending him to Brussels, a man dogged by suspicions of corruption and scandal throughout his career as a PN politician – think Mater Dei, Mid-Med, Lowenbrau just for starters – and further tainted by the fact that he had a brother accused of smuggling first alcohol, then drugs, into Malta, was insane.
But the foetid waters of Maltese politics seem infested with this kind of character, even today. The PL, stuffed to the gills with corrupt individuals who seem untouchable: Muscat himself, Konrad Mizzi, Carmelo Abela, Rosianne Cutajar, Justyne Caruana, Edward Scicluna…the list is endless.
The PN today isn’t far behind, with its own shameful collection of cup-rattlers and favour-beggars, led by a man who failed to pay his taxes for almost all of his working life.
Nine years too late. As with any crime, a delay of this length before the police act is damaging and risks being compromised. Dalli has had almost a decade in which to tamper with evidence, interfere with witnesses and dream up excuses, explanations, justifications and “alternate facts”.
And the man is now 72 years old. If his behavior during the making of the Danish documentary ‘Storyville: The Great European Cigarette Mystery’ was anything to go by, he’s already lost the plot. To try to hoodwink the journalists making the film that he’s innocent, he concocted an elaborate story about emails from a mystery woman who claimed to have explosive evidence to prove Dalli had been set up by the then President of the European Commission Jose Barroso.
Of course, this transparent ruse was rumbled almost immediately, when the journalists discovered that Dalli had been sending the emails to himself.
The clumsy, amateurish tricks that work so well with the Maltese public simply don’t cut it with proper professionals who aren’t brought up to believe anything a politician says blindly, just because he’s Labour or Nationalist. Or worse, to know he’s lying, but support him rabidly and aggressively anyway.
Just as Swedish Match recoiled from the alleged request for a bribe from Dalli’s sidekick, and OLAF and Barroso saw straight through his claims of ignorance, and the lady from ESTOC came close to fainting in shock at being asked for cash by the commissioner’s agent, in countries where most people are honest, this kind of behavior is abhorrent.
Here in Malta, everyone scrabbles to cover up, make excuses, go on the counter-attack, everyone, including the police themselves. Angelo Gafa, who admitted last year there’s a case against Dalli, has finally taken the decision to act.
Zammit was charged with trading in influence in 2012, but his case has gone nowhere… still pending, still barely even begun. If Dalli’s case is allowed to drag on similarly, we can forget him ever really having to pay the penalty for his alleged crimes. He’ll be 82, ten years from now.
So there’s no euphoria at all in hearing the news. Just fury, that yet another crook, a man steeped in scandal who has never yet been called to account, may slip through the net.
The Labour government and its minions in the institutions are becoming very adept at the art of going through the motions to placate observers, but sneakily putting them into reverse when they think no-one’s looking.