The old whistleblower test

In the battle of perceptions that both political leaders are waging, it can only be the independence of the magisterial inquiry that will guarantee a sane outcome to all these allegations

21 May 2017, 8:07am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Whistleblowers may not be saints, but neither are they sinners of course. Which  is why the Egrant inquiry deserves the serenity it requires if this country, currently in the throes of a snap election, is to find solace in the functioning of its judicial institution.

Both political leaders have upped the ante on this central inquiry: Prime Minister Joseph Muscat insists that it will be Opposition leader Simon Busuttil to carry responsibility for what he calls a calumny; Busuttil has been intent on presenting a slew of transactions to the same magistrate investigating the Egrant allegation, which he insists shows money laundering going on between Muscat’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and Adrian Hillman, Allied Newspapers’ former managing director.

In various stories in which people blew the whistle on what appeared to be highly irregular affairs, it so happened that these same people found themselves in the news for other, humbling reasons.

Philip Rizzo, who exposed a massive conflict of interest for the director of the Internal Audit and Investigations Department was given the job of CEO at the national employment agency; a sexist comment on Facebook sealed his ouster, but he was instead placed at the head of the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools, where there too however, he blew the whistle on alleged kickbacks paid to a procurement officer.

Charles Magro, a contractor who was told by mega-contractors JPM Brothers that works on the house of former finance minister Tonio Fenech were “a favour for the minister to help him sell off the Jerma Hotel to Gasan and Fenech [the two business groups]”, went on to be granted numerous public tenders as well as direct orders by the government to set up exhibition stands and outdoor structures for national events.

The whistleblower on the Gozo works-for-votes scandal turned out to own a company that also won government contracts through the FTS – and indeed, posted an embarrassing, public plea to the education minister to reinstate the disgraced procurement officer that Rizzo blew the whistle on.

Such stories throw a harsh light on the motivations of these people. Surely they revealed matters to the public that are of public interest: the business interests of a powerful individual in the civil service, a favour to curry influence with a senior minister, and the way a minister’s spouse allegedly used a government department to carry out works for constituents.

At times, virtuous purpose turns out to be heavily laced with pecuniary interest and tribal motivations.

Whether or not a whistleblower is given some form of legal status, matters not. George Farrugia, the oil trader who devised a system of kickbacks on oil procurement, was granted a pardon by Lawrence Gonzi on condition that his ‘confession’ leads to convictions. Farrugia blew no whistle. He had been exposed by MaltaToday and should have been charged for the kickbacks. And yet, the clemency of the administration of the day saw it fit that he enjoy immunity for spilling the beans.

Nor does it matter that a whistleblower, like the former Pilatus Bank employee, is facing charges for misappropriation of funds by the bank. That alone does not matter one iota on the act of shedding light on wrongdoing.

But here lies the rub. The accusation must be correct. Without trying to downplay the claims of a whistleblower, who is said to have seen a document linking the Muscats to a secret offshore company (and which could have been used to receive a $1 million payment from the Azerbaijan ruling family), it stands to reason that the accusation must be firmly proven.

Philip Rizzo had provided email correspondence to show the involvement of the IAID’s Rita Schembri in a lucrative business deal; Charles Magro went on record and when Tonio Fenech threatened the newspaper with libel, he retracted the court action; Joe Cauchi told police and the courts he was actually paid in cash by Anthony Debono as part-payment for works he said were commissioned by the Gozo projects department when Debono headed the unit. The Pilatus whistleblower – one assumes – might have provided the magisterial inquiry with the declaration of trust lifted from a mobile safe that contains the name of Michelle Muscat being revealed as the owner of an offshore company.

That’s a matter for the inquiring magistrate to consider. In the battle of perceptions that both political leaders are waging, and the obvious ramifications of the serious accusations lobbied against Keith Schembri, it can only be the independence of the magisterial inquiry that will guarantee a sane outcome to all these allegations.