Economy Minister Silvio Schembri can’t seem to keep track of his own department’s spending sprees.
Schembri was asked in parliament to list all the direct orders dished out by the Malta Gaming Authority since 2013. He complied, but it seems he ‘forgot’ a few, The Shift revealed, including lucrative contracts given to Labour pollster Vince Marmara, the co-owner of Media Today Saviour Balzan, and lawyers Cory Greenland and Minister Miriam Dalli’s sister Veronique.
The resulting dialogue was so inept it read like a farce.
‘Why did you withhold information from parliament?’
“The MGA has never withheld and would never withhold information from parliament,” said the spokesman.
‘You didn’t include these,’ said The Shift, showing him a list of lucrative direct orders that had been given to cronies.
Ahh, well, you see… “the information tabled in parliament refers to direct orders which have been approved by the Ministry of Finance direct orders office”.
But all direct orders over €5,000 must be approved by the Finance Ministry, said The Shift. That includes the €5,000 per month given to Vince Marmara and those given to Saviour Balzan’s company.
When the Technicality Smokescreen failed to produce an adequate fog, the spokesman claimed the MGA had simply made a mistake. I mean, how are they supposed to know every detail of every regulation as well as a journalist from The Shift?
‘If you could just give us your list of ‘omitted’ direct orders,’ they said, ‘we’ll check it against the list we gave to parliament…’
In other words, ‘Tell us which ones you found, and we’ll put them in — hopefully you didn’t find everything.’
The Speaker of the House said he’ll investigate, and while I’m sure Anglu Farrugia will go through the motions, I wouldn’t expect him to impose any consequences. He couldn’t find it within himself to censor Rosianne Cutajar when even her fellow Labour MPs voted in favour of a timid slap on the wrist.
Farrugia is more unfit for purpose than a toilet plunger in a cake shop. He should have resigned or been replaced long ago.
Unfortunately for the hard-working taxpayer, Silvio Schembri’s attempt to hide ongoing efforts to give lucrative contracts to friends of friends is only the latest in a long line of Things Hidden From Parliament.
Earlier this year, every Labour MP on the Public Accounts Committee voted to keep the Electrogas contract secret — hidden even from the other half of parliament, despite having signed it in your name. We only found out about all those dodgy offshore companies because a whistleblower leaked the details to Daphne Caruana Galizia. It seems increasingly likely that the journalist was murdered to keep her from reporting it.
The government also refused to table the Vitals Global Healthcare contract in parliament. We only found out about the highly suspicious — and completely illegal — Memorandum of Understanding Chris Cardona signed with VGH after a string of denied Freedom of Information requests, a three-year court battle, and a ridiculous game of hide and seek.
Other details came out when The Shift discovered that Steward Healthcare had filed unredacted copies of all VGH agreements and side letters in court as evidence in an appeal against a UK court judgement involving one of the original VGH investors.
Private records get “lost” by this lot, too.
While the government was lobbying frantically to stay off the FATF greylist, the Malta Business Registry quietly deleted the online records of hundreds of thousands of shell companies that had been dissolved or liquidated. By some odd coincidence, their online system was also altered to make a key change to the ‘search’ function. It’s no longer possible to search for directors’ involvement in Maltese companies.
If there aren’t any searchable records to find, did a crime really exist?
When it comes to Freedom of Information, the situation is even worse.
President George Vella refused The Shift’s request to publish the resignation letter of a discredited public employee named Joseph Muscat, and when Robert Abela finally overruled him and ordered the letter to be published in full, its utter mundanity — ‘Dear Pres, I’m resigning, Joseph’ — led many to speculate it wasn’t the actual letter at all.
The OPM has ‘no documents’ on Muscat’s €120,000 golden handshake, either, and they won’t tell you how it was calculated. The taxpayer is expected to just shut up and pay the bill.
Miriam Dalli’s Malta Enterprise won’t tell you which developers benefitted from a €4 million grant to buy construction equipment.
Carmelo Abela won’t show you the internal, unpublished audit that found no evidence of improper spending at this year’s Eurovision song contest, despite internal ministry reports suggesting taxpayer funds were used to place bets in order to manipulate the odds. He won’t even tell you who carried out this audit, how it was done, or why his ministry felt it necessary to spend so much of your money on a glorified talent show.
The government even fought tooth and nail to hide how much of your money they were spending to send employees from Owen Bonnici’s Cleansing Department to Valletta every night to destroy the Daphne Caruana Galizia protest memorial.
Of course, The Shift is used to having requests for information denied. The government typically waits for the full term before replying and then requests an extension. Even when a handful of FOI requests are finally accepted, the government challenges the data commissioner to prevent the information from being released.
It’s abusive and undemocratic, and you deserve better from the officials you elected to govern in your name.
Several potential solutions were offered to remedy this toxic situation.
The Venice Commission concluded that “The Freedom of Information Act should be updated, using available international models, to guarantee the transparency of the administration vis-à-vis the media and the citizens”.
The board of the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia also called for a revision of the Freedom of Information Act “to limit the cases in which the public administration may arbitrarily refuse to provide information that is in the public interest and that the public is entitled to”.
They said, “The culture of confidentiality and secrecy under the pretext of privacy or commercial prejudice has little to do with democracy when it comes to the administration of the common good which must always be transparent and accountable”.
But it’s already obvious that the government wasn’t listening.
Despite Labour’s 2013 campaign promise of transparency, meritocracy and good government, this is a regime that loves shovelling its dirt under the carpets.