Clean up your act, or someone else will

The United States sent a clear message to Malta yesterday, but was anyone listening?

Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi have joined over 149 public officials and their immediate family from countries like Albania, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia (where officials were linked to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi) in being banned from travel to the United States.

The embassy wouldn’t comment on whether Joseph Muscat was on the State Department’s radar for sanctions of his own.

It’s another dubious honour of the Muscat era, along with the disgraced former prime minister being named 2019 Person of the Year for Organized Crime and Corruption, and being relegated to the FATF grey list of countries under increased monitoring for money laundering and terrorist financing.

The fallout suffered by businesses and individuals from the island’s increasingly shady reputation — such as Bank of Valletta customers being relegated to Western Union for US dollar transactions — is more difficult to assess.

You might be wondering what effect disrupting Mizzi and Schembri’s travel plans will have on Malta.

A US embassy official made it very clear to me that these sanctions are based on “credible information of direct or indirect involvement in significant corruption”.

“The United States is committed to promoting accountability for those involved in significant corruption and will continue to use all tools available to combat corruption globally,” they said. The email ended on an ominous note, warning, “we continue to monitor investigations into corruption in Malta closely”.

A former diplomat I spoke with described this as “a rare rebuke of an otherwise friendly country”.

“The State Department doesn’t sanction just anyone who is suspected of significant acts of corruption,” he said. “It only does this when the prospects of domestic prosecution are weak. This is why we only read about cases from countries with high rates of impunity”.

Allow me to offer a helpful translation for the many Muscat appointees with little experience in the language of diplomacy, like former water polo coach and Ambassador to Montenegro Karl Izzo, UK High Commissioner Manuel Mallia, and Honorary Consul to North Macedonia Matthew Fenech.

The US has lost patience with Malta’s plodding investigations into these extremely serious cases of corruption, and they expect results.

The FBI was instrumental in identifying the hitmen who killed Daphne Caruana Galizia, flying in technical experts to assist Malta police in tracking the signal used to detonate the bomb.

The embassy offered to help with investigations again, posting a statement on the second anniversary of the journalist’s death, saying, “It is not too late for Malta to bring Daphne’s killer to justice in a credible manner”.

Their comment on the 19 bomb attacks the island has suffered since 2010 — “too many remained unsolved” — suggested they had something concrete to offer, but Joseph Muscat’s government said ‘No thank you, we have full faith in our own investigators’. He neglected to add ‘because we can control them’.

Two more turbulent years have passed. Yorgen Fenech was arrested while trying to run away. Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona were questioned by police. And Muscat was driven from office by a month of public protests.

The complication of evidence in the various cases connected with the murder have ground along like rusted gears, but clearer results were provided by the hard-fought public inquiry that found the State directly responsible for Daphne’s death.

And that’s where things continue to sit.

Two years after Malta refused the American offer of help, impatience was obvious in the embassy’s next statement. On October 2021, they called for “a thorough, transparent, timely, and credible conclusion to the investigations into the murder”.

Needless to say, this hasn’t happened.

As a former diplomat explained to me, Schembri and Mizzi are now on a global — and highly public — list of offenders, “and there is now strong pressure on the Maltese police to finally prosecute them”.

Any financial institution that serves these clients should take note that they do so at increased risk.

As for the toxic two, the American connection to Vitals by way of Steward Healthcare should be keeping them awake at night. US charges could be pending under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).

It’s up to Robert Abela to decide whether he’s more afraid of the Americans or of his own predecessor. If he isn’t willing to serve justice locally, he risks having Malta’s dirty laundry done in a place where bribing foreign officials comes with prison terms and fines of up to $21,663 per violation.

But all of this will have to wait.

The prime minister is busy being ‘hurt, even on a personal level’ over the resignation of unrepentant Education Minister Justyne Caruana for handing plum government contracts to her unqualified boyfriend, and the loss of MP Silvio Grixti, who had the rare good sense to resign when he was placed under police investigation.

Such resignations are shockingly uncommon in Malta, where public officials must be dragged from power in the most undignified manner, digging their fingernails into their desks and wrapping their legs around their chairs. It only happens on the rare occasions when the usual denial and bluster hasn’t worked.

Abela tried to portray this slight glimpse of normality as a dramatic shift, rather than the sort of thing which should have happened all along, telling One Radio, “Since January 2020 we have brought in higher standards, a culture of change, something which the opposition never practiced”.

All the whataboutism in the world won’t change the fact that those guilty of the worst looting of public funds remain untouchable.

The world is watching, and the world expects action — but will police commissioner Angelo Gafa get the message?

The carrot has just been replaced by a very heavy stick.

                           
                               
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Peter
Peter
25 days ago

Robert Abela enjoyed millions of euro in direct orders from Joseph Muscat and Keith Schembri. He will keep defending them. Why does Abela refuse to publish his statement of assets and income?

carmel ellul
carmel ellul
25 days ago
Reply to  Peter

He lost them between Malta and Sicily on a rough day.

James
James
25 days ago

Well said Ryan.

It has been evident to anyone who has been following events closely over the last few years that the untouchables have been paying the merest of lip service to the gentle reminders that have been shared with them by the various international agencies that things need to change.

The carrots have not worked so let’s hope the E.U will also take the big stick approach now and withhold funding until those involved are successfully prosecuted. Not only the high profile figures, but also those who have enabled these scams to flourish by supplying legal and accountancy advice to hide the truth from us all for so long, and the regulators too are complicit in this too.

Godfrey Leone Ganado
Godfrey Leone Ganado
25 days ago
Reply to  James

Kudos to all.
BOV has been slapped, hopefully not cosmeticly, by the FIAU with a hefty Euro 2.6 million fine, which obviously has to be paid through lesser dividends for the shareholders, which includes struggling pensioners and persons who invested to complement to a minor extent, the miserable state pensions.
The FIAU had suffered a big loss with the seperation from the Malta Business Registry, which was the main contributor to the MFSA’s economic solvency, supported by government contributions which made it shed its intended independence as an Institution. Pilatus Bank, Satabank, Nemea Bank and local and foreign politically exposed persons are clear proof of the rampant impunity adopted by a complicit corrupt government.
This complicity was also boosted by a subservient professional class whose priority was the opportunity of having a freehand in the charging of ‘professional’ fees.
I wonder whether the ‘independent’ rating agencies, unless they too benefit from golden eggs, will downgrade the rating of BOV, to the further demise of Foreign Direct Investment based on the US dollar currency for its operating currency.

Carmel
Carmel
25 days ago

Title of this commentary could end with, “Then you become irrelevant”

Simon Oosterman
Simon Oosterman
25 days ago

Like his predecessor, Angelo Gafa does as he is told. RA is the one with a problem. For him no carrot was big enough. We’ll have to wait and see whether the stick will work.

Carmel Ellul
Carmel Ellul
25 days ago

Isn’t obvious why Muscat sent the FBI packing after a few days of the murder. They had already homed in on who planted the bomb. He could not risk the fbi homing on who ordered her murder. It is so obvious.

viv
viv
25 days ago

Robert ‘Marie Antoinette’ Abela’s insouciant nonchalance does him no favors, no matter how much they will plan to give appearances of justice being served in the coming year.
Holding grimly on to power to cover up a litany of abuses and shameful amateurism is a dead end, whatever one’s perspective.

Carmelo Borg
25 days ago

Nispera li DOT (SIC) MUSCAT qed jaqra dawn affarijiet ta hnizrija li u halli jigru meta kien il prim.(Alavolja nahseb li ghandu imdeffes wara il kwinti). Suggeriment ahrab bil familja go PAJJIZ li ma hemmx demokrazija halli forsi ma is sibukx inhebba u tersaqx l Hawn ghax bi hmietek gibtna din is sitwazjoni. U int Abela jekk se tibqa tipprotegi lil kiminali idejek se ikun imcappsa daqshom. Fejn qeda il rule of law fejn qed tghid li l affarijiet irrangaw lanqas l amerikani muma jemnuk ahseb u Ara il maltin ta rieda tajba.

joe tedesco
joe tedesco
23 days ago

A PL GOVERNMENT WILL NEVER, EVER, CLEAN ITS ACT.

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