Prime Minister Robert Abela requested personal information about the Opposition Leader’s taxes from Tax Commissioner Marvin Gaerty and attempted to instigate action against the Opposition Leader through the Tax Commissioner. These were the two serious allegations that Standards Commissioner George Hyzler ‘investigated’.
The Times of Malta reported in December 2020 that Gaerty’s mobile phone contained messages with Abela referring to Bernard Grech’s tax affairs. Abela was asked directly – did you ever request information from the tax commissioner about the opposition leader? The prime minister did not reply.
Having spent the whole night pondering over the issue and figuring out how to wriggle out of that one, Abela admitted on the following day he had indeed communicated with Gaerty. But it wasn’t to request information, you see, but to report Grech.
Abela tied himself in knots while trying to hoodwink the nation. “A source from inside the PN,” the prime minister claimed, had told him that Grech hadn’t paid his taxes. Without being given any documentation or hard evidence to support those allegations, Abela called the Tax Commissioner to pass on that information.
“I did my duty,” Abela said. “I didn’t discuss; I simply informed the Commissioner about what I had been told…”.
Nobody believes him. No prime minister personally calls his tax commissioner to tell him about unsubstantiated claims made by a “source” from within the party of an adversary about the opposition leader.
If “a source” was making those allegations, the obvious decent thing for Abela would have been to tell the “source” to go to the police or tax commissioner directly.
Abela was clearly abusing his position of power. He used his direct access to the commissioner. Whether he intended it or not, his direct unwarranted intervention in the private matters of the opposition leader involved exerting his influence on the public service. He probably did far worse. His evasive and panicked replies to the media about the matter are not those of an innocent man.
Hyzler wrote to the prime minister as part of his investigation. He asked Abela one simple question – can you confirm your statement of 28 December that you simply informed the tax commissioner, not requested information, about Bernard Grech?
Abela couldn’t even be bothered to answer yes or no. His letter is an exercise in the most offensive arrogance and disdainful contempt. “I note that the Hon Opposition Leader did not register any complaint with you about this subject. If Prof Cassola is truly convinced that I committed any offence, it is up to him to identify and substantiate it.”
The sheer insolence of the man is staggering. Just two years into his premiership, Abela believes he is above accountability, scrutiny and the law.
What was even more shocking was the commissioner’s response to Abela’s barefaced impertinence. Hyzler didn’t call Abela to his office. He did not write back with demands. He simply let it go and let Abela off the hook.
Hyzler made a feeble attempt to get information from Marvin Gaerty. The former tax commissioner flew to Las Vegas with Chris Borg, the man accused of kidnapping, money laundering and drug smuggling and paid Robert Abela €45,000 in a Zabbar plot deal. Abela was Borg’s lawyer when he struck that deal.
Gaerty was also interrogated over his chats with Yorgen Fenech over possible trading in influence. Abela oddly kept Gaerty in the post while under police investigation, so he owed Abela. Sure enough, when Hyzler asked Gaerty about his chats with Abela, Gaerty refused to answer.
His excuse was that he was legally prevented from revealing information he holds as part of his duties. Surely passing on sensitive information to the prime minister about his adversary is not part of his duty.
Yet Hyzler swiftly conceded defeat. Despite his “broad powers to gather information”, he’s helpless in the face of a commissioner like Gaerty who’s intent to protect his own protector, Robert Abela.
Hyzler wrote to Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa requesting access to Abela’s mobile phone chats with Gaerty. Gafa refused, hiding behind Article 518 of the criminal code.
Hyzler simply shelved the complaint, concluding that he just couldn’t tell whether Abela had breached ethics or not. Hyzler treated Abela with kids’ gloves. He didn’t challenge the insolent letter the prime minister sent him. He didn’t call him in. He didn’t insist on an answer. His interpretation that Gaerty need not reply to his questions was also dubious.
Why was Hyzler so soft with Abela? Just a few months ago, Abela nominated Hyzler as Malta’s choice to sit on the European Court of Auditors. That prestigious post comes with a basic salary of €280,848, besides other perks and allowances.
Abela killed Hyzler as commissioner by conveniently disposing of him. But Abela’s also killed all subsequent commissioners. The standards commissioner has been rendered completely powerless.
Abela provided all ministers and MPs with a template for how to evade scrutiny, escape accountability and defy justice. The commissioner’s authority has been permanently negated and fatally undermined.
All an MP needs to do to fend off the commissioner’s investigations into alleged breaches of ethics is to emulate Abela – just write a rude letter completely ignoring the commissioner’s questions, and you’ll be let off the hook.
As prime minister, Abela should be setting the example to other parliamentarians He should reply honestly and expeditiously to questions from any institution. He should demonstrate the highest level of accountability and transparency.
If he had nothing to hide, Abela would volunteer to share those chats with Hyzler. Sadly, like Chris Cardona’s geolocation records, Abela’s chats will remain secret.
Abela manifests an authoritarian level of arrogance that beats Joseph Muscat. Muscat had at least replied to the commissioner’s request for information, even though he was still eventually let off the hook. Abela disdainfully dismissed the commissioner, ignored his questions, insulted the complainant and demolished the commissioner’s authority.