Lawyers are questioning the ruling by Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech on Monday in which she acquitted the chief canvasser of former Labour Minister Evarist Bartolo of corruption charges because the prosecution had not sufficiently proven he was a public employee.
Edward Caruana, at the centre of the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools (FTS) scandal, was let off the hook by the court on Monday. In her 37-page sentence analysed by The Shift, the magistrate ruled that Caruana’s previous job was with a “private company”, and that he returned to “another private company” when he finished his deployment with the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD) – a government body.
The companies cited in relation to Caruana’s employment in the ‘private sector’ – Resource Support & Services Limited (RSSL) and Industrial Projects Services Ltd (IPSL) – are one and the same company following rebranding. It is government-owned and falls under the direct responsibility of the Office of the Prime Minister.
The company was set up to absorb employees from different parastatal institutions such as the Malta Drydocks, Malta Shipbuilding, the Malta Development Corporation, Sea Malta and the Institute for the Promotion of Small Enterprises.
In her sentence, Magistrate Frendo Dimech declared that “from the fact that the accused was employed with the Foundation (FTS) from a private company Resource Support & Services Limited (RSSL), no proof was brought up to the required grade that when he was employed with the Foundation, after a job with the private sector, he (Caruana) returned to being a public official or employee”.
The magistrate added: “In fact, after that he was seconded with the MCESD and he was redeployed with another private company, Industrial Projects Services Limited (IPSL), and did not return to the public service”.
Malta Business Registry documents, however, show that the government is the owner of the company, which was later rebranded as RSSL Ltd.
The magistrate acquitted Caruana even though she found the testimony of both FTS senior officials who took the stand, Philip Rizzo and Anthony Muscat, to have been “credible”. They both testified that Caruana had asked one of the contractors working on a public-school project for a €30,000 bribe.
The company employing Caruana which the magistrate insisted was a private company is owned by the government. It changed its name from IPSL to RSSL after the Labour Party was returned to power in 2013, with former minister Konrad Mizzi’s father, Lawrence Mizzi, serving as its chairman.
Its board is appointed by the government and the company is financed by taxpayers.
Criminal lawyers consulted by The Shift said the decision was “strange”. Others said that while it seems to be a case of “interpretation”, there was no disputing the government’s ownership of the companies that the magistrate insisted were private enterprises.
A veteran lawyer experienced in both national and EU law told The Shift, “In my opinion, the magistrate wrongly interpreted the law. According to her logic, all public sector employees within entities such as Transport Malta or Enemalta are not serving a public role. This is wrong.”
The Shift is also informed that Caruana moved from the public company IPSL to the education ministry soon after the 2013 elections as a person of trust of then-minister Evarist Bartolo.
It was only some months later that he was appointed through a direct contract as a manager at the FTS, which is responsible for school building projects, on Bartolo’s instructions and without a formal call. This timeline is not reflected in the magistrate’s considerations.
It is unclear whether the police and the Attorney General will file an appeal.
The magistrate also found that the testimony of contractor Giovanni Vella, a Gozitan known as Tal-Malla, and the brother of Magistrate Monica Vella, was not credible as he has a colourful past with various infringements of the law.
Vella said Caruana had asked him for a €30,000 cut to ensure that the ministry would pay him for his work at a school in Rabat.
Caruana is the brother of Joseph Caruana, the education ministry’s permanent secretary at the time of the corruption claims.
He was first accused of wrongdoing by then-FTS CEO Philip Rizzo, another of Bartolo’s persons of trust, who reported Caruana to the police for taking bribes and demanding kickbacks from contractors working on government school projects.
Among other accusations, which Rizzo insisted were reported to both former minister Bartolo and disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat, Caruana used to distribute government payments to contractors personally, in a clear violation of the rules.
In total, Caruana had distributed cheques amounting to a value of some €8 million before he was suspended.
Rizzo also made the assertion, which has now been confirmed by the court, that Caruana solicited favours in kind such as “a truckload of tiles” from one of the contractors working on a school.
The solicitation of such ‘favours’ took place when Caruana was in the process of building a block of apartments in Rabat – on a government salary and without a bank loan.
In an email, Rizzo had told Bartolo, point blank, that he was playing with fire by defending his ‘canvasser’.
“Someone is going to ask from where during the last two years Edward (Caruana) got circa €400,000 to build a six-apartment block in Rabat,” he had told his minister.
In 2021, the same magistrate presiding over the case ordered the release of a freezing order imposed on Caruana on the Rabat block he was building, saying the prosecution (police) had not managed to prove any connection between the charges of bribery and corruption and Caruana’s possessions, including his Rabat project.
It is unclear whether the police investigated the source of funds used by Caruana to finance his Rabat development.