Eight new cabinet members appointed by Prime Minister Robert Abela following the last general elections, including two ministers and six parliamentary secretaries, have failed to declare their income for the previous year in breach of the ministerial code of ethics.
The newcomers, for the most part successful professionals who have earned good salaries from the private sector, left their declarations of assets blank, saying their income for 2021 was “not available”.
Although this unprecedented move appears to have been coordinated, the prime minister has failed to explain why he has accepted their stance in questions sent by The Shift.
According to the code of ethics, of which the Prime Minister is supposed to be the ‘guardian’, all members of cabinet are expected to fill in their declarations of assets upon their appointments and pass them on to the cabinet secretary. Those declarations are submitted annually as a measure of good governance and transparency.
These rules, however, have been regularly ignored by some, including the prime minister himself, who instead of being as transparent as possible, chose to be economical with the truth and refused to declare his earnings before taking office. He is now even trying to hide his rental income from Russian applicants of the cash for passports scheme.
His new ministers and parliamentary secretaries are now evidently taking a page from his book in a clear attempt to avoid public scrutiny of their declared taxable income before taking office.
The most glaring omissions
New Gozitan MP turned Active Ageing Minister Jo Etienne Abela, considered one of the country’s most successful consultant surgeons until his election to parliament last March, declared he does not own any property, not even his residence.
He also failed to declare his income for 2021 – a whole year in which he practised as a consultant surgeon, both in the public and private sectors. He also declared he has no investments in bonds, shares, or companies and that his worldly possessions amount to some €300,000 in bank deposits.
Even the new justice minister, former Labour reporter Jonathan Attard, refused to declare his professional income before becoming a minister.
Attard practised as a lawyer at a legal firm together with Charlon Gouder and Joseph Gerada. The firm was among the leading legal practices receiving a significant amount of direct orders from the government for several years.
While failing to declare his income for tax purposes in 2021, Attard said that he owns two properties in Mellieha and has €364,000 in bank deposits. At the same time, he has €583,000 in outstanding loans.
Lawyer Andy Ellul also had a problem declaring his 2021 income, despite the assurances he gave in parliament last week that the government had nothing to hide when defending the declarations’ tardiness.
Declaring he owns a villa in Madliena, an office block in Paola and a cabin cruiser together with his partner, former Labour reporter Claudia Cuschieri who has been on the state payroll since 2013, Ellul said he also has €178,000 in bank savings and an outstanding mortgage of €75,000.
The other new members of Abela’s cabinet, including the prime minister’s sister-in-law Alison Zerafa Civelli, Alicia Bugeja Said, Chris Bonnet, Rebecca Buttigieg and Keith Azzopardi Tanti – all failed to declare their 2021 income.
Chris Bonnet, who spent years on hefty government retainers, declared he does not own the property in which he lives. He did not declare how much he pays in rent.
After their tabling in parliament, declarations of assets are usually scrutinised by the Standards Commissioner. So far, however, the prime minister has not appointed a new Commissioner after the departure of George Hyzler for the European Court of Auditors.
This means that until a new Standards Commissioner is appointed, the declarations of Abela’s cabinet will not be reviewed for any possible breach of ethics.