It’s about accountability and public standards

FTS: The problem is of a systemic, recurring nature. Only a systemic overhaul with an emphasis on transparency and accountability can get us out of this mess.

8 December 2016, 10:17am
The controversy surrounding the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools has predictably taken a turn for the party political; and as usual, the underlying issue threatens to be lost in a vortex of accusations and counter-accusations.
Education Minister Evarist Bartolo has vehemently denied that a tenderer had warned him in 2015 of alleged irregularities in procurement procedures at the FTS, involving his former canvasser and driver, Edward Caruana.

“What tenderer? I don’t know that person and never met him in my life,” he said when asked by MaltaToday at the end of a Cabinet meeting. “If I were to claim that I met you at midnight and published that story in MaltaToday’s Sunday paper, would that make the information true? [...] We are contesting the information that was published last Sunday.

Just because a story appears in a newspaper doesn’t make it gospel truth.”
Bartolo is within his rights to question the story, if he feels it misrepresents him or his actions. The point under contestation, however, is not when the minister himself was informed; or whether he took sufficient action when the case was brought to his attention. It is the case itself, and what it reveals about the state of public governance, that really matters.

Bartolo’s involvement adds considerable cannon fodder in the ensuing political tussle; that much is unavoidable. It is partly also regrettable as – apart from occasional errors of judgment, such as this case seems to be – Bartolo has undeniably been among the most productive, energetic and generally dependable of the current Cabinet.
The allegations themselves do not necessarily overshadow his ministry’s accomplishments. But they do suggest that something is decidedly rotten in the administrative set-up of Malta’s educational institutions. Ultimately, the mise-en-scene involved a ‘person of trust’ who was clearly too close to the corridors of power for comfort.

There is also a very visible conflict of interest, that has unaccountably been allowed to persist.
The story began with a complaint by a supplier over suspected irregularities in the tendering process for school furniture in 2015, a year before the Rizzo allegations. A tender document for school furniture seemed to be tailor-made for a specific bidder, making it impossible for other bidders to compete on a level playing field.

MaltaToday is informed that Bartolo had followed up this complaint and asked Joseph Caruana, the permanent secretary at the education ministry, to meet the complainant. At this meeting, it turned out that the FTS procurement officer, Edward Caruana – also Evarist Bartolo’s former personal driver and canvasser, appointed to that position as a person of trust – was the brother of permanent secretary Joseph Caruana. 

That meeting led nowhere but it shows the problem of two brothers in the wrong place.
Fast forward to 2016 when Rizzo resigned as CEO of FTS: alleging ‘serious multiple wrongdoings’ concerning the procurement process and the clear conflict of interest in the Caruana family.
Many of Rizzo’s allegations point to the fact that direct orders issued by Edward Caruana needed his own brother’s sanctioning before being directed to the finance ministry. In April 2016, Edward Caruana was accused of allegedly demanding a €30,000 bribe in order to release payments owed to a Gozitan contractor, Giovann Vella, on works related to the extension of the Gozo sixth form.

But Joseph Caruana had claimed that he did not feel the need to report the corruption claims to the police. Instead, the police instituted charges against Vella for tarnishing Caruana’s reputation.
Rizzo did not provide any clear proof of corruption in his resignation letter, but simply noted the plethora of direct orders, many of which were given the green light by the finance ministry, and the relationship between the permanent secretary and his brother.

The outgoing FTS CEO also accused Bartolo of not telling the truth, knowing for a long time about the alleged impropriety within the procurement process, and – most damningly, from a political perspective – of trying to dissuade Rizzo from formally reporting the matter to the authorities.
On his part, Bartolo has repeatedly insisted that he acted immediately as soon as he got to know about the allegations – precisely when is one of the bones of contention, but given that the conflict of interest has clearly existed for years, this detail is largely irrelevant.

Following an internal investigation, which Bartolo had ordered at the end of August, there was prima facie evidence that Rizzo’s claims against Edward Caruana were true, and that these were passed on to the police.

From this point on, the differences expressed by both sides of the argument come across as mere quibbles over precise details. The entire issue all points to a situation that has become painfully familiar in Maltese politics. In a system still so dependent on political patronage, the ‘canvasser’ or close confidante becomes too powerful a figure to allow to run amok.
Bartolo’s political future may hang in the balance, but it shouldn’t be the only consideration. The problem is of a systemic, recurring nature – as evidenced by Manuel Mallia’s earlier resignation, over the actions of his driver. 
Only a systemic overhaul with an emphasis on transparency and accountability can get us out of this mess.