‘Dirty politics’: Former secretary of fishermen’s committee on sector’s links to industry, government, crime

Tista’ taqra dan l-artiklu bil-Malti hawn

The government failed to protect fishermen from major businesses who have swallowed up the industry, a former member of the committee of Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd Ltd told The Shift.

Martin Caruana, whose family’s history is intertwined with fishing and spent most of his life working as a part-time fisherman, is known among his peers as a lone voice in the wilderness of an industry which has been repeatedly hit by major corruption scandals.

One well-known scandal was the major web of corruption linked with Andreina Fenech Farrugia, the former director-general of the government’s fisheries department who was accused of soliciting bribes from Jose’ Fuentes, one of the owners of one of the biggest tuna ranchers in the Mediterranean.

Caruana spoke to The Shift after this news portal revealed the conclusions of an investigation into the operations of Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd Ltd.

“The Cooperatives Board is conscious of Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd Ltd’s financial problems but instead chose to avoid doing its duty and did nothing to stop the abuse,” Caruana said, calling out the board for failing to hold the cooperative’s committee accountable.

“The Board has had the cooperative’s accounts in hand for years, accounts which year after year, were waiting for someone to look at them. Accounts which clearly indicated that there was some serious wrongdoing,” Caruana added.

Earlier this month, the Cooperatives Board, the official government entity which regulates every cooperative registered in Malta, concluded an investigation into Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd’s accounts – a cooperative set up by fishermen to facilitate the sale of their catches.

The Cooperatives Board’s inquiry into the fishermen’s cooperative’s accounts and conduct confirmed The Shift’s reporting, which showed that the cooperative was over €100,000 in debt and practically insolvent.

Since 2007, the fishermen’s cooperative has been run by an executive committee largely controlled by four individuals – Joseph Demicoli (president), Paul Piscopo (secretary), Michael Carabott (vice-president) and Ernest Galea (treasurer).

Piscopo’s vessel was previously caught ferrying contraband diesel, while Carabott was caught red-handed smuggling ammunition which was allegedly destined for Libya. Galea should not even be a member of the committee or even engage in fishing activity since the law forbids fish vendors from being on the committee.

Demicoli, the president, has made it a point to boast of his very close relations with the top echelons of the Labour Party.

From left: President of the fishermen’s cooperative Joseph Demicoli with prime minister Robert Abela, and disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat and his chief of staff Keith Schembri.

However, rather than ordering the cooperative’s liquidation due to the committee’s track record and the dire financial status that the accounts attested to, or at least ensuring the cooperative goes into administration, the Cooperatives Board said that it has reached out to members of the fishermen’s cooperative to see if anyone else wants to take charge of the committee.

The Cooperatives Board’s spokesperson did not answer The Shift’s questions about how a new committee would be able to pull the cooperative out of insolvency. While the coop’s leaders are expected to resign, there has been no talk of accountability.

Caruana, who had left the cooperative’s leadership in 1994 after 17 years at the helm, believes that the cooperative was run aground by people who “enjoyed absolute impunity”. He had also briefly served on the government’s fisheries board in 2016, in which Caruana regularly clashed with Andreina Fenech Farrugia until he eventually resigned in March of last year, describing the environment as a conflict-driven one.

Reiterating that the Cooperatives Board has had evidence of wrongdoing from the cooperative’s committee since at least 2016 but chose to do nothing, Caruana said the only thing that changed was that the fishermen’s cooperative stopped publishing audited accounts.

“What the Board also did was raise the tariffs for acquiring a copy of the annual accounts, making it quite expensive for the public,” Caruana said. Anyone interested in seeing a cooperative’s accounts would have to pay the Cooperatives Board €0.23c per page, according to their spokesperson.

“Not only did they fail to do their duty, but they abused their power to stop people who wanted to do their duty for them,” he added, further claiming that there were occasions in which the Board increased tariffs to “exorbitant” levels whenever he specifically asked for accounts.

When asked whether he thinks that the cooperative’s members will actually respond to the Cooperatives Board’s call to take on the task of turning around a financially defunct cooperative, Caruana said he did not believe this would happen.

In the cooperative’s annual accounts, auditors expressed an extremely negative opinion on the state of affairs, even outlining instances in which money that went into the cooperative could not be traced or located.

“If the auditor couldn’t find this money, then it is certainly not in the cooperative’s accounts,” Caruana said.

“The cooperative’s members are fishermen, and fishing is what they do. All they wanted was to have professional management so things could proceed as they should,” he added, arguing that the cooperative instead ended up being “hijacked” by individuals who sought to squeeze the industry and use it to cover up illicit activity.

Caruana believes that the Cooperatives Board’s failure to take adequate action against the committee amounts to a cover-up of the exploitation of a cooperative that once served as the voice of the industry’s workers and catered for much of their needs.

‘The territory of dirty politics’

Caruana attributed the problems to “the territory of dirty politics”.

Having been in the industry for more than four decades, Caruana has seen a transition from a market that was largely supplied by traditional fishermen who own one or two vessels to one that is dominated by major players who own entire fleets.

“I can’t say, with 100% certainty, why the government did what they did. However, I can observe that the fishing industry has been stolen from traditional fishermen,” Caruana said.

Today’s major players, which include huge businesses like Azzopardi Fisheries, Elbros and other companies of that scale, have pushed out traditional fishermen, with legislation passed over the years working in favour of major players who are also donors to the main political parties.

“One thing they did was to impose quotas on fishermen: if you don’t catch a specific amount of fish every year, they take away your licence. They just began sending out letters to whoever did not manage to reach their quota and take away their professional licence,” he added.

Fishermen who did not make the quota would essentially lose their licence to fish professionally or on a part-time basis, instead only being allowed to go on recreational fishing trips while not being allowed to sell their catch, practically cutting off their lifeline.

While the number of traditional fishermen gradually declined due to the pressures imposed by government quotas, the licences taken away from them were instead given to “the fat cats of the industry”, thereby increasing their quotas.

“What is clear is that based on the actions of the Cooperatives Board, nobody is working towards the strengthening of the industry or the cooperative itself,” Caruana argued.

“This is what has happened in Marsaxlokk – fishermen have disappeared over the years because of how events have aggressively developed against their interests,” he added.

                           
                               
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Out of Curiosity
Out of Curiosity
1 month ago

This Gov is the personification of evil, and dirty politics, unprecedented corruption and unconditional support to the selected few occupying top positions to abuse power and discredit honest Gov Officials, are part of its malicious strategy to gain absolute control, whilst accomodating few opportunists with a clear mission to DIVIDE AND CONQUER.

carlos
1 month ago

In other democratic civilised countries the fishermen as well as the farmers would have invaded the streets but in Mafiamalta anything illegal goes. Shame on this muvument korrott.

Godfrey Leone Ganado
1 month ago

What about due diligence by the MFSA for members on such boards?
What about the FIAU and the Police Economic Crimes Unit, for wrongful trading by such entities?

Dennis Vella
Dennis Vella
1 month ago

I have known Martin Caruana for a very long time since his post with the Central Bank, and I have always found him to be an up-right and honest person. If he has cause to speak out in such terms against an association he has loved and worked so hard to improve than there must really be seriously wrong undercurrents going on.
I hope that for once authorities will do the right thing for the benefit of the people and correct this shambles. Well done Martin and please do not give up. The country needs people like you.

MA Caruana
MA Caruana
1 month ago

Allow me to add some more details.

I was the secretary/manager of GKTS for 17 years and I resigned in 1994. I was there at the time when the Cooperative was very active both in terms of the commercial services it offered to its members and as a strong voice for the rights of fishermen.

In 2016 a few fishermen and myself decided to set up an NGO, so that we can have a voice. Within an extremely short time I was asked to be appointed on the Fisheries Board. This did not happen casually. It was strategic. Whoever was in power wanted to contain criticism within the confines of a boardroom. I can describe it as a very terrible experience that started from day one, i.e., the first meeting. The “kitchen cabinet” comes to mind. My appointment was a mistake. It was not my mistake, but I had to bear the brunt. In March 2021 I resigned from the Board. Apart from many serious issues at the time of a former disgraced Director General of Fisheries, I felt that I had to quit because it was unacceptable to continue serving on a board that included illegitimate persons. I am referring specifically to Messrs. Demicoli, Piscopo and Galea, all three of them members of the Fisheries Board. If they had ever been investigated for their actions in the GKTS, they certainly would not have been eligible to sit on the Fisheries Board. Rogues should not be allowed to sit on Government boards.

As a licensed middleman (pitkal) in the main Fish Market, Mr. Galea cannot be a fisherman nor operate in a business that is related to the sector, let alone be a member of a fishermen cooperative. To make matters worse, not only is he a member, but he sits on the GKTS Committee of Management as Treasurer. This means that there is a clear violation of both the Fish Marketing Regulatios (L.S. 425.02) and of the Co-operative Societies Act (Cap. 442).

The Subsidiary Legislation 425.02 (7) stipulates that ” A pitkal may not have any interest in the fish trade which is extraneous to his business as pitkal.”.

Chap. 442, Article (72) stipulates that: ” An individual shall be eligible for membership of the committee of management of a society or to remain a member of such a committee if he: (c) does not engage in an activity which gives rise to a conflict of interest; (d) does not take part, on a permanent or occasional basis, in any activity which is directly or indirectly in competition with that of the society;”.

It is known to all and sundry that Galea’s business activities have always been in direct conflict with that of GKTS. Since Galea managed to become a member, his business has continued to flourish while that of the GKTS has been completely dismantled. To add insult to injury, the GKTS has been evicted from its premises by the Lands Authority. No one was taken to court for breaching a lease contract in favour of third parties. Impunity reigns. But one should not be surprised. A protagonist in this saga had long been floating the idea that the Co-op’s premises should be converted into a restaurant and that Marsaxlokk should become a yacht marina! Smells of hidden roadmaps!

Despite the serious irregularities and deficiencies under his leadership, Mr. Demicoli (President) was appointed as a consultant within the Fisheries Department. Exhibiting photos with people in power can guarantee impunity for wrong doing and might yield other benefits. In this context, rule of law and meritocracy have wilfully been thrown to the dogs.

Official documents that expose bad behaviour and serious abuses in the management of GKTS, had for years been gathering dust in the offices of the Co-operatives Board. Up to the financial year 2016, things worsened to such an extent that the auditing firm stopped giving its service to the co-op. They could not afford risking their reputation and being put in a very bad light. The rogues at GKTS seem to have been unable to find another auditor to help them keep up appearances. Everything has totally collapsed.
 
Regarding the tariff for procuring a copy of the accounts, I can confirm that it was €0.23 per page until some time ago. But tariffs seem to have changed in the recent past. The last time I asked for a copy of some reports that I missed, I was shocked and had to give up. Asking to just have a look at some pages made no difference.  

Regarding the status of GKTS, I have no doubt that it is a dead body that stinks. Those who say that it is alive must have ulterior motives. No fisherman having a good head on his shoulders will take on the management of the Co-operative.

Just imagine a scenario where those responsible for the quagmire are let off scot-free while the buck is passed to someone else to face the music. Imagine law suits from various creditors, penalties for breaching various laws, court sittings, meetings with lawyers, skipping fishing trips because of summons etc., zero cash and no other assets to make good for court fees, lawyers’ fees, outstanding dues and whatever! The net value of GKTS is negative to the tune of €120,000 or more. How could anyone cope with all that and find the time, energy, support and finances to cover the Co-op’s debts and raise it from the dead? That would be impossible unless a hidden hand opts to bear the cost to maintain the status quo, until a time comes when secret roadmaps can be shown the light of the day and get the go ahead for implementation… a time when resistance would be firmly suffocated.

Given the circumstances, it is very rich of the Co-optative’s Board, to go to the GKTS members to tell them that “The Board feels that a change in the executive committee would be beneficial so the cooperative would have better leadership and that there would be wider involvement from its members”. Practically it means that they are trying to find a way to spare the rogues from the long hand of justice, while at the same time offloading the shit on innocent individuals who have no idea whatsoever about the depth and implications that would engulf them.

Certainly, a certificate of a failed regulatory institution… its mission turned on its head. If the Board wants to get out of this and save itself from shame, it should call on all the members of the two fishermen’s cooperatives, with the aim of organizing them into a single, true and upright co-operative, that embraces the principles enshrined in the law. If no one wants to embrace the principles of a cooperative, then no one has the right to exist in that context. It is a fact that both co-ops are fake. The Constitution of Malta, which gives so much importance to cooperative societies, should not be trampled on anymore. The Co-operatives Board must shoulder its responsibility.

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