In his latest decision, the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life found that Parliamentary Secretary for EU Funds Chris Bonett did not breach ethical standards when he used his government-leased car for a private holiday abroad.
Although the Commissioner called for “prudence” and more explicit guidelines, he decided not to investigate further. Many found this decision perplexing, but it is not the Commissioner’s first contested decision since his appointment in March.
A bumpy start
Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Azzopardi was appointed Commissioner for Standards in Public Life last March through a controversial ‘anti-parliamentary deadlock’ legislation quietly passed two days after Christmas.
The new legislation does away with the two-thirds consensus needed to appoint a new commissioner, and a simple majority vote will suffice, thus allowing the government to choose a commissioner without requiring the Opposition’s approval.
When Azzopardi spoke to The Shift amid the controversy surrounding his nomination for Standards Commissioner, he stated, “All that matters is that once I take my oath of office, I follow to the letter what is expected of me.”
According to a report by The Malta Independent published in July, since the current Commissioner for Standards in Public Life was appointed, the office had 27 pending complaints (requests for investigations). “Subsequently, we received a further 16 complaints,” his office told the newspaper.
Since 8 March, the Commissioner for Standards has resolved 12 complaints and has 31 pending complaints. The office further clarified that some pending complaints are under preliminary review while others are the focus of formal investigations.
Investigations deemed unnecessary
Azzopardi’s first decision as Commissioner for Standards in Public Life was to decline to investigate Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo for initially obscuring documents confirming that Pierre Fenech was the CEO of two government entities simultaneously, earning €122,000 yearly, which The Shift first revealed in February.
Citing The Shift’s reports, independent candidate Arnold Cassola requested an investigation. Cassola asked that Bartolo be investigated for “refusing to provide adequate information” and going against “basic transparency standards required of any public servant”.
Azzopardi, however, argued that although Bartolo “failed to present the contract… the mistake was rectified less than two weeks later” and that “it is true that the delays could have been avoided, but the delays themselves do not merit an investigation”.
Shortly afterwards, Azzopardi also decided not to investigate Transport Minister Aaron Farrugia after he failed to attend parliament for questioning on the day a video showing a pair of Transport Malta officials beating a man in the middle of the road had gone viral.
Following a complaint by NGO Repubblika, Azzopardi found that the Ministerial Code of Ethics obliges ministers to attend parliament except when working or sick. He also found that the House’s Standing Orders excuse ministers only when the Speaker is notified in advance through the Party’s Whip.
Minister Farrugia was not abroad or sick and had not notified the Whip of his absence. Nevertheless, Azzopardi attributed the incident to poor planning on Farrugia’s part and decided against further investigation.
This was Azzopardi’s second decision against investigating a complaint about the transport minister.
In 2021, Arnold Cassola complained that half of the government’s beneficiary scheme Irrestawra l-faċċata recipients came from Farrugia’s electoral districts. In February 2022, former Standards Commissioner George Hyzler deemed that a preliminary investigation should be started.
Nevertheless, although Commissioner Azzopardi confirmed that seven of the 14 streets awarded grants are indeed in the minister’s electoral districts, he chose not to investigate as they were “much-trafficked areas”.
More recently, Azzopardi also decided to discontinue an investigation into how Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri ordered infrastructural works to be carried out in Comino in 2021, citing that he did not have the competence to delve deeper into the matter.
Complaints upheld or partially upheld
In a partial decision, Azzopardi said he would investigate Environment and Energy Minister Miriam Dalli for her promotion by singer and social media influencer Ira Losco, also revealed by The Shift. However, he would not investigate Project Green CEO Steve Ellul as he does meet the definition of a Politically Exposed Person.
Cassola filed the complaint to the Standards Commissioner after The Shift reported that Losco promoted Minister Dalli and Ellul on her social media without disclosing the posts’ sponsored content.
Three other complaints upheld and closed by Azzopardi as Commissioner of Standards include a complaint against former MP Jason Azzopardi over his failure to submit income tax returns, a complaint against MP Michael Farrugia over misleading statements to the media and a complaint against Minister Clyde Caruana for using public funds for personal advertising.