Independent political candidate Arnold Cassola, who was one of the complainants that prompted the standards’ commissioner investigation into former education minister Justyne Caruana’s decision to award her boyfriend a €15,000 direct order, questioned why the former education minister has decided to file constitutional proceedings against the same office she had voted in.
“Why is Justyne Caruana contesting the standards commissioner’s powers if she voted for them in parliament?” Cassola asked, referring to Caruana’s announcement that she has filed a constitutional case against the standards commissioner to declare the office’s powers as unconstitutional and to annul the report altogether.
NGO Repubblika has also questioned Caruana’s U-turn on the standards commissioner’s office, issuing a statement earlier today in which the group advised the beleaguered former education minister to refrain from treating people “like idiots” in light of the ethical breaches the MP has committed.
Caruana’s last-ditch attempt at annulling the report is in stark contrast to the disgraced minister’s stance on the Standards in Public Life Act, the legislation which regulates the office’s powers to monitor and investigate any alleged ethical breaches conducted by MPs.
In fact, in a plenary session held on 11 July 2016, Caruana herself had intervened in parliament to emphasise the importance of the setting up of the standards commissioner’s office, going as far as chiding the opposition for having failed to enact similar laws when the PN was in power (see video below).
The speech was given in the context of the fallout of the Panama papers as one of the multiple legal reforms enacted on paper by the government.
“I believe that these kinds of laws enable us to pass a clear message that political life is not for those who want to go in it to line their pockets but only for those who want to serve the country and their people rather than their personal interests,” Caruana had told parliament in her speech.
“From the beginning of this legislature, we were courageous enough to give ourselves, as a government, a clear message to be responsible and have integrity in what we do. This was a commitment we gave to the public, and we fulfilled it,” Caruana said.
Caruana, who back then was serving as parliamentary secretary for rights of persons with disability and active ageing, had a direct role in the setting up of the standards commissioner’s office, and she had expressed her personal belief in the “discipline and seriousness” required in parliament, praising the government’s “political maturity”.
“The politicians of this country should lead by example. I want to believe that the standards established by this act should be held close to heart by all members of this chamber, including those who have been here for a long time without doing anything to amend these laws,” Caruana had stated.
Fast forward to 2021, Caruana’s lawyers are now claiming that the standards commissioner’s investigation of her breach of ethics over the Bogdanovic contract prejudices her right to a fair hearing due to possible criminal consequences.
Caruana is now seeking to overturn the Act she was so approving of five years ago on the basis that the commissioner failed to draw a distinction between the office’s investigative and decision-making roles, the lack of the possibility of appealing the commissioner’s conclusions, and not being given enough time to go through the evidence presented against her.
Two resignations in one year
This is the second time Caruana has had to exit her office in disgrace in the span of as many years – in January 2020, she resigned from her position as minister for Gozo following the exposure of links between her former husband, then-deputy police commissioner Silvio Valletta, and Daphne Caruana Galizia murder suspect Yorgen Fenech.
When prime minister Robert Abela was elected to succeed Joseph Muscat following the latter’s forced resignation from the post, Abela re-appointed Caruana minister of education on 23 November of that same year.
The appointment was fraught with more calls for scrutiny into Caruana’s affairs just a few months later. By March, a second complaint that sought an investigation into news reports which had exposed Caruana’s personal relationship with Bogdanovic was filed as well.
In December 2020, Bogdanovic was transferred to the education ministry, just days after Caruana was sworn in as minister of education on 23 November of the same year. In February, Bogdanovic signed a €5,000 a month contract to carry out studies in relation to the National Sport School, according to Hyzler’s report.
Based on the evidence gathered through the investigation, Hyzler concluded that Caruana “committed abuse of power” through her decision to award “preferential treatment to Bogdanovic, in particular by giving him a contract through direct order which Bogdanovic was neither qualified nor competent enough to carry out”, the report adds.
The commissioner’s report also exposed how, in spite of Abela’s statements about the need for politicians to shoulder political responsibility for one’s actions in the lead-up to Caruana’s resignation, the office of the prime minister had done its utmost to accommodate Caruana’s abuse of power, approving the order on the same day it was issued.