Curious cases of déjà vu

In being the prime mover behind the action that provoked this investigation, Paul Bonello was acting in the interests of the small investor against the people who run a relatively behemoth bank.

Finco managing partner Paul Bonello (centre). Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday.
Finco managing partner Paul Bonello (centre). Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday.

A funny thing happened to Paul Bonello on his way to seek redress from the Prime Minister. He was told the government does not interfere with commercial decisions taken by the banks.

Just in case you missed it, last Monday the country got to know that Bank of Valletta had launched a 'counter offensive' against Paul Bonello who had reported BOV's antics in the La Valette Property Fund debacle to the Malta Financial Services Authority (MFSA). The resulting investigation had led to the MFSA fining BOV €350,000 for regulatory breaches related to the fund and €200,000 for misselling practices connected with the same fund. MFSA also recommended BOV to compensate fully a number of inexperienced investors who were wrongly sold shares in its high-risk property fund - a recommendation that was reluctantly accepted by BOV while it preferred to maintain its innocence rather than apologise.

In being the prime mover behind the action that provoked this investigation, Bonello was acting in the interests of the small investor - some of whom were his clients - against the interest of the people who run a relatively behemoth bank and who would have obviously preferred to run roughshod over the rights of the victims of the bank's antics. But acting on the assumption that this is a democratic country where the small man is protected if he is trampled upon by the system was, apparently, Bonello's mistake.

In a move that can only be described as short-sighted petty vengeance, BOV have now informed Bonello that they were withdrawing his corporate credit card, and his personal credit card as well as that of his wife. They also gave notice of termination of the business agreement with his company regarding dealings in financial instruments for his clients.

In spite of the fact that Bonello declared he is waiving all confidentially clauses so that BOV will be free to publicly explain why it took these decisions, BOV is sticking to its obligations not to discuss publicly its clients' private and confidential matters and giving this as the reason for its refusing to answer questions made by the press on this issue. Are we to consider this attitude as a sign of the seriousness with which BOV does things?

It is now doubtful whether Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando deserves the award for the Sicilian-style vengeance achievement of the decade as BOV have now entered into this race as well and they evidently have a really strong case! May the worst man win, of course...

The funny thing that happened to Bonello was not BOV's petty action but his reaction to the reply he got from the prime minister when he duly asked for his intervention. Government owns a golden share in BOV - meaning it has the right to appoint the Chairman and a number of directors, rights that are out of proportion to the 25% shareholding it owns.

Bonello sought the prime minister's intervention precisely because government owns this golden share as a result of which there is a number of people who are directly nominated by it and who are among those ultimately responsible for the banks' decisions.

The prime minister, apparently, replied that he should not - and does not - interfere with the decisions taken by banks; which would have been the expected correct attitude if the bank was privately owned and the golden share thing did not exist. Incidentally, this also shows that the government's decision not to privatise completely BOV was wrong - not just ideologically. But once his own administration took this decision, the prime minister cannot act as if he did not take it!

From a letter he wrote to the prime minister, it seems Bonello was struck with a curious case of déjà vu. Way back in 1977 when Bonello was just a bank employee, he had taken part in a legitimate (partial) industrial action against his employer that was one of the State-owned banks and in an act that can only be described as one of retribution to this industrial action, these banks (Mid-Med and BoV) had called in their employees' home loans. At the time, Prime Minister Dom Mintoff had said that his government does not interfere with the commercial decisions of the banks that it owns.

While I always believed that there was more than a hint of hypocrisy in Mintoff's position, I do not agree with Bonello who seems to think this is also the case with the current prime minister. Mintoff was in complete control of the State's banks and if he really disapproved of their shameful behaviour, he could have stopped their petty nonsense in no time.

Not so Lawrence Gonzi: he is not in control of anything that is done by the people who are his own appointees and his reluctance to interfere is only a reflection of this lack of control. So Bonello should spare a thought for poor Gonzi and understand that the comparison he made is not only odious but also unfair. For Mintoff, the end justified the means; for Gonzi there is nothing that needs to be justified.

***

Incredibly, cases of déjà vu seem to be cropping up like wild mushrooms.

A friend of mine asked me to consider these two scenarios:

  • A man in very good health is arrested for questioning, taken to the Police Headquarters and then mysteriously found dead outside the Police HQ.
  • The Opposition party sets up a board which it uses to criticise the government of the day and zealous State officials invoke the law to remove it.

My friend then continued with his quizzing: Did these two incidents happen under the Mintoff regime or under the present administration?

Funnily, the answer is: they happened twice - once under both.

In case you are wondering, the names of the two men in the first scenario were Nardu Debono and Nicholas Azzopardi.

The billboard that irked Mintoff so much was just an electronic message board at the PN Valletta club that led to the electricity supply of the club being cut off to ensure that the State venerates the sanctity of the electricity regulations. I need not describe the existing billboards that MEPA sought to remove, also in the name of the proper regulation of things - an action stopped by the Law Courts.

Call them history repeating itself, call them curious cases of déjà vu, call them what you want.

After all, what's in a name?

The author is a former PN Cabinet minister

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