Fourteen members of the new government’s Cabinet – out of 18 ministers and four parliamentary secretaries (so far) – including Prime Minister Robert Abela himself, have still got a ton of uncomfortable baggage left over from the previous legislature.
While Abela managed to repeatedly dodge questions from journalists about his dubious property dealings throughout the 2022 general elections, suspicions about his profitable dealings with alleged criminals and Russian passport buyers continue to endure.
As for the rest of the cabinet, individuals known to have been responsible for the abuse of taxpayer money have nevertheless successfully returned to power. The Shift takes a look at their track record from the last legislature, and the stories they wish taxpayers would forget about.
Minister for health – Chris Fearne
Fearne’s track record remains stained by his multiple attempts to deny any knowledge of the fraud and corruption surrounding the public hospitals concession, originally signed under the auspices of disgraced former Health Minister Konrad Mizzi.
Fearne had not only denied any responsibility for the deal, but also insisted that Steward Healthcare, the current concessionaires, were “the real deal” in 2021. Fearne had also justified an increase in Steward Healthcare’s annual budget as an investment in healthcare, in spite of evidence showing Steward Healthcare’s own description of the concession as “fraudulent and corrupt”.
The health minister is also known for his generosity when it comes to dishing out public funding to close allies and members of the Labour party. In January, The Shift published a series of stories revealing that Fearne had hired his campaign manager, Carmen Ciantar, as chief-of-staff on top of her €13,500 a month job as CEO of the Foundation for Medical Services, breaching the party’s own governance rules.
Minister for national heritage – Owen Bonnici
A report published by The Times of Malta indicates Bonnici has been assigned responsibility for the public broadcaster.
Bonnici was found in breach of fundamental human rights twice when formerly serving as justice minister, once for repeatedly ordering the clearing of the Daphne Caruana Galizia memorial in front of the law courts and once for unilaterally introducing a band club protection law that was declared unconstitutional.
His dismal track record on human rights, along with the lack of impartiality displayed by the public broadcaster after it was taken over by Labour party apparatchiks, has already raised eyebrows, especially in view of the fact that Bonnici’s ministry does not, strictly speaking, have anything to do with public broadcasting.
Minister for foreign affairs – Ian Borg
Borg’s stint as infrastructure minister will be permanently associated with the Planning Authority’s accommodating decision-making in favour of major developers and the the staggering amount of taxpayer money squandered on direct orders through Infrastructure Malta (IM) and Transport Malta (TM).
In an article published in March of last year, The Shift showed that between 2018 – 2020 alone, Borg’s ministry spent as much as €60 million in direct orders. Both IM and TM have taken decisions relating to public contracts which were successfully challenged in court by irate private operators seeking to overturn contracts irregularly awarded to Gozitan contractor Joseph Portelli and the Zammit Tabona family.
Minister for social policy – Michael Falzon
Falzon’s history as a cabinet minister was tarnished primarily by the fact that he was parliamentary secretary for lands when one of his close persons of trust, Clint Scerri, was embroiled in the 2015 Gaffarena Old Mint Street government property scandal.
Besides Scerri, Falzon’s right-hand man, Matthew Zammit, was given a directorship position on the board of a government agency within Falzon’s ministry just months after Zammit was forced to resign from the Lands Authority following his acquisition of a prime piece of public land in Senglea at the suspiciously low rate of around €20 a day.
Minister for agriculture – Anton Refalo
Known for his largesse in terms of employment of constituents and supporters when previously serving as minister for Gozo, Refalo’s stint as agriculture minister since 2020 has seen the same methods being put to use.
In March of last year, The Shift revealed that Refalo’s ministry had issued €3.6 million in direct orders in his first year in office, mainly involving contracts for various services being given to Gozitan voters.
Refalo, reportedly an avid collector of historical artefacts, also refused to answer The Shift’s questions related to the bizarre scandal in which a 19th century British-era relic was discovered in his home. Refalo was equally non-responsive when questioned about why disgraced former fisheries director Andreina Fenech Farrugia has been kept on half-pay to this day despite her suspension over corruption allegations in 2019.
Minister for economy – Silvio Schembri
Known as the face of the failed ‘Blockchain Island’ project and the minister under whose watch the Malta Business Registry (MBR) purged tens of thousands of records, Schembri is no stranger to controversy.
Between February and March, The Shift published reports detailing how the minister diverted funds from the Responsible Gaming Foundation towards organisations in his constituency in the run-up to the 2022 general elections, his failure to explain how the MBR’s premises end up costing taxpayers €31 million, and on what grounds his wife was given a €14,000 promotion at the same agency.
Minister for inclusion – Julia Farrugia Portelli
Farrugia Portelli’s standing as a politician took a sharp nosedive after her repeated mishandling of the country’s efforts to reopen to tourism during the COVID pandemic during her brief stint as tourism minister in 2020.
Critics had called out Farrugia Portelli’s expenditure of taxpayer money to promote herself and Malta Film Commissioner Johann Grech in relation to the country’s efforts to attract international film productions in Malta as an attempt at restoring her public image.
Farrugia Portelli was also noticeably silent on or dismissive of any further investigation of the questions raised about MTA’s Head of Events, Lionel Gerada, and the scandalous Ta’ Kandja shooting range project.
Minister for social accommodation – Roderick Galdes
Galdes’ remit, which is limited to government housing, was nonetheless found to be rife with the same problems seen in other ministries.
The state-owned company which oversees government housing estates, Housing Maintenance and Embellishment Ltd, was found to be operated by amateur management leading to serious suspicions of gross mismanagement and abuse of public funds, according to the National Audit Office.
Minister for infrastructure – Aaron Farrugia
Farrugia’s previous stint as environment minister was marked by targeted greening and embellishment projects amounting to millions of euros, many of which were carried out in Farrugia’s electoral districts.
Farrugia’s cosy relationship with Malta’s premier hunting lobby, the FKNK, as well as his public appearances with major construction developers like Joseph Portelli, raised eyebrows throughout his tenure as environment minister.
Minister for Gozo – Clint Camilleri
Unsurprisingly, Camilleri, who is a staunch ally of the FKNK, has retained control over the regulation of hunting in Malta. Even more profligate than his predecessor, Refalo, Camilleri spent more than €7.5 million in direct orders through the last six months of 2020 alone.
Camilleri’s ministry was involved in projects whose costs rapidly spiraled out of control, one of which even involved the use of an illegal batching plant owned by Joseph Portelli.
Minister for tourism – Clayton Bartolo
Bartolo has repeatedly come under fire over the funding dished out through his ministry.
Two of the more recent, high-profile scandals which the minister has yet to answer for is the amount of money that was spent on the extravagant Malta Film Awards ceremony and the shuffling around of his partner, Amanda Muscat, to the Gozo ministry in an attempt to obfuscate his partner’s appointment within his own ministry.
Minister for home affairs – Byron Camilleri
Camilleri, who was sworn in as home affairs minister in January 2020, was heavily criticised for his indecisivenesss in the face of calls for the removal of former director-general of the Correctional Services Agency Alex Dalli after a spate of tragic suicides in prison and a flood of reports citing inhumane conditions.
Camilleri not only failed to fire Dalli, who suspended himself from his position, but also awarded Dalli a promotion to the government’s envoy in Libya, with an accompanying salary of €103,000.
Minister for education – Clifton Grima
Grima, who was appointed to his role as education minister following Justyne Caruana’s ousting in December 2021, was the parliamentary secretary responsible for the same Ta’ Kandja shooting range project which Farrugia Portelli declined to investigate further, a project which ended up costing taxpayers €13 million instead of the originally budgeted €7 million.
Minister for public works, planning – Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi
Zrinzo Azzopardi’s private interests, along with the interests of his family members, have depended on the Labour party since it swept to power in 2013.
His brother’s company, C-Planet IT Solutions Ltd, was fined €65,000 in January for having failed to secure a database containing personal details of over 337,000 Maltese citizens, including ID card number and voting preferences.
Zrinzo Azzopardi’s own legal firm, SZL Advocates, had to rebrand to 360 Legal because its own database featuring an extensive list of contracts with government authorities was also exposed in the same breach.
In October of last year, a magisterial inquiry looking into possible misuse of public funds to build rubble walls in Dingli was commenced, featuring Zrinzo Azzopardi as the main subject.
Former parliamentary secretary for equality – Rosianne Cutajar
Cutajar, who was officially elected to Parliament following the casual election on Thursday, has faced a barrage of scandals over the last legislature, including around her role as a broker in the sale of an Mdina property to Daphne Caruana Galizia murder suspect Yorgen Fenech and her criticism of former PACE Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt on the international stage following his report on the investigation into Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
On 22 March, the Council of Europe concluded that Cutajar had committed a serious breach of ethics when she failed to disclose her conflict of interest before criticising Omtzigt’s report.
Former government whip – Glenn Bedingfield
Bedingfield, also elected to Parliament after the casual election, was arguably one of PL’s biggest spenders in terms of projects being carried out in his constituency, given that a foundation he was chairing as of last legislature was allocated a budget of €7.6 million to carry out 25 restoration projects in the electoral district the MP contested in.
Often acting as the government’s chief attack dog when the party is facing dissent, Bedingfield was also previously given numerous appointments to parliamentary committees in which he repeatedly bogged down proceedings through accusations of partisanship and bias being leveled at members of the opposition, in particular during sittings related to high-profile inquiries such as that into the Electrogas scandal.