Egrant, a secondary issue? I don’t think so

What sort of a prime minister would Simon Busuttil make, if he feels he can make public accusations of the most calamitous nature imaginable... only to suddenly argue that the issue is no longer important?

There are two layers of political responsibility to be shouldered here
There are two layers of political responsibility to be shouldered here

Honestly: much as I hated the subject when I took Philosophy credits at university... I think we may need to introduce a basic course in Logic as part of the national curriculum. 

I have lost count of the number of non-sequiturs surrounding the core allegation that overshadows this entire election campaign. It is as though the vast majority of the electorate simply parted company with logical thought processes, the moment the election starter pistol was fired. 

Perhaps the most bizarre example was the sudden change of heart regarding the original Egrant allegation. (note: I’ll be using the word ‘allegation’ a lot in this article, because – incredibly – that’s what it still remains three weeks later). Where, only three weeks ago, it was the single most earth-shattering accusation levelled at a serving prime minister since... forever, actually... now, suddenly, the general attitude seems to be: ‘That? Oh, that is now passé. We now have evidence of other, unrelated scandals. The Egrant business no longer serves any useful political purpose to us... you can all forget we ever brought it up.’

Hm. OK, tell you what. Three weeks is, after all, three times longer than a ‘long time in politics’. Perhaps the people arguing this way may have simply forgotten the severity of the original allegation. So let’s recap.

Towards the end of April, Daphne Caruana Galizia published typed excerpts of what she claimed to be an incriminating document naming Michelle Muscat, the prime minister’s wife, as the ultimate beneficiary owner of Egrant: i.e., another shady offshore company, set up at the same time (and under the same old shady circumstances) as all the other shady companies we already knew about. She also claimed that one million in dirty Azerbaijani money was deposited there to be laundered.

It was the long awaited ‘missing link’ that finally made a clear connection between the corruption scandals we had been talking about for over a year, and Joseph Muscat in person. If the allegation proves true, and a hardcopy emerges of the document in question... as well as transaction records confirming the deposit... (and, to have covered all options, these documents are proved not to be forgeries)... then it really would be game over for Joseph Muscat. 

In the first instance, he, his wife or both would have to face criminal prosecution for money laundering. If found guilty, there could be prison sentences of up to 18 years. 

By any stretch of the imagination, that would constitute an unprecedented scandal for Malta, and quite possibly for Europe too. Off-hand I can’t think of any examples in which serving European prime ministers were charged in court for such a serious crime: still less convicted. (Oh, wait: it happened in the Isle of Man, of all places, in 2004. And Bettino Craxi springs to mind, too; though he dodged jail by self-imposed exile in Tunisia.) 

And those are just the legal ramifications. The political fall-out would be unthinkable. This is, after all, the same Joseph Muscat who looked us all in the eye and swore his innocence before God. Who claimed to have been the victim of a ‘frame-up’, and who has suggested that the entire story was a calumny, and the incriminating documents were forgeries. 

There are two layers of political responsibility to be shouldered here. Before even getting to the implications of a damning inquiry conclusion, there is the fact that Muscat – albeit in the process of defending himself from allegations – has made criminal accusations of his own. Forgery is also a crime punishable by jail-time. If it turns out that this counter-attack was based on a lie, Muscat’s credibility will quite simply never, ever recover (leaving aside that he’d be in jail anyway).

On a broader level, a criminal prosecution on the basis of the Egrant allegation would not only spell an instant and very emphatic end to Muscat’s political career... it could conceivably also spell the end of the Labour Party. The entire party (with exceptions such as Godfrey Farrugia) has thrown its considerable weight behind its prime minister. That’s a lot of political credibility that would have to follow Muscat onto the scrapheap of history.

But all this has to be prefaced by that all-important proviso: if the allegations prove true. From this perspective alone, anyone arguing that Egrant is ‘no longer the issue’.... or, as PN deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami put it in a recent interview, that ‘it is now almost secondary’... is clearly deluded.   

For starters: a distinction has to be made between allegations that directly implicate the prime minister in criminal acts... and ones which cast doubts or questions over his political acumen. There can be no doubt that Muscat’s political judgment was severely tainted by the Panama papers revelations in April 2016. But for over a year now, the PN’s strategy has been to establish a clear, direct link between the corruption we already knew about, and Joseph Muscat in person. 

It is patently ridiculous, then, to claim that no further proof is needed for the latter allegation, because (among other excuses) we already have enough proof to hang Keith Schembri, Brian Tonna et al over kickbacks from the sale of passports. Proof of one set of claims does not automatically translate into proof of another set of (unrelated) claims. That is a classic case of a non-sequitur, right there. 

Another distinction to be made is between political responsibility and criminal culpability. The Panama Papers did not directly implicate Muscat in any criminal activity... nor indeed anyone else. People seem to be forgetting that it is not actually a crime to open a company in Panama, according to Maltese law. Perhaps it should be – anyone trying to do that now, with everything that’s happened in the past year, should be criminally charged with stupidity in the first degree, if nothing else. But from a strictly legal perspective, the revelations were not actually criminal in nature. 

They were politically damning, certainly; but political and legal ramifications are not interchangeable. The former are highly subjective, and politicians can always find ways to wriggle their way out of responsibility. Legal culpability is a slightly harder obstacle to sidestep. There is a due legal process that is absent from the first scenario.

All along, however, there is another reason to continue focusing on the main allegation. Muscat is not the only one whose political career may be at stake over this issue. In view of the seriousness of the possible consequences, I find it utterly discombobulating that an Opposition leader would so cavalierly repeat those allegations on prime time TV... and then distance himself from them just three weeks later, in the middle of an election campaign.

Like it or not, that is what we are now in: an election campaign. And elections are there specifically for the purpose of choosing a party to form a government. Simon Busuttil seems to be entirely unaware of this, but he, too, is in ‘a court of public opinion’ (as he reminded Muscat during that Xarabank debate). People would be justified in asking themselves what sort of a prime minister he would make, if he feels he can make public accusations of the most calamitous nature imaginable... only to suddenly argue that the issue is no longer important, because there is proof of corruption at lower levels of government.

Busuttil seems to have forgotten, too, that he appointed himself chief public prosecutor in that court of public opinion. Can you imagine if a real prosecutor, in a real court, were to turn to the judge and say: ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about the criminal charges I pressed against the defendant at the beginning of this case. I am now more interested in other charges that are not even directed at the same defendant. And I expect the court to likewise forget those initial charges, and concentrate on these new ones instead...’

Well, here I shall have to admit that I am not a lawyer (though Dr Busuttil is), and I may occasionally misrepresent legal scenarios. Is my analogy inaccurate? I don’t think so myself. From where I’m sitting, and through my entirely non-legal perspective... my guess is that the judge would throw that prosecutor bodily out of the courtroom, if not have him arrested on the spot for contempt of court.

And that is before considering the possibility (though I fail to see how this could happen in practice, given the nature of the allegations) that the documents do indeed turn out to be forgeries. Would Egrant still be a ‘secondary issue’, if it emerged that a party aiming to occupy government in the imminent future, would so carelessly tether its own credibility to a criminal allegation that turns out to be, in itself, a crime?

I need hardly add that the long-term political fallout, in that case, would be just as unprecedented and earth-shattering as the opposite scenario. Suddenly, it would have to be the Opposition leader to face criminal charges in court. Legal experts would no doubt fill in the blanks on the charge sheet: I’m guessing ‘accessory to fraud and false accusations’, or something of that nature. And again, just like Labour, a massive chunk of the Nationalist Party would have to follow their leader overboard as he walks the plank.

Funny, isn’t it, how the implications of a ‘secondary issue’ could be so utterly primal in their immediate consequences? But again: the same proviso mentioned earlier has to apply here, too... only in reverse.

It all depends on whether the allegations are proven or disproven... which in turn depends on whether they CAN ever be proven or disproven at all. By the time you read this we may well have a final answer – I’m expecting the magisterial inquiry to be concluded by Sunday, though of course I won’t be placing any bets.  

But consider for a moment the worst-case scenario. What would happen if that document never emerges at all, and it proves impossible to ever settle the matter one way or another? That, I fear, is the likeliest scenario... and the long-term effects would be dire. 

Half the country would believe – indefinitely – that their beloved party leader, and his even more beloved wife, were framed. The bitterness and resentment will just never go away. It will reverberate for generations to come, as other unsolved political crimes still reverberate to this day.

The other half would believe, with equal conviction, that their prime minister somehow got away with murder. Or at least, money laundering... which carries a comparable sentence anyway.  If Joseph Muscat wins this election under those circumstances, his government will be haunted every step of the way by suspicion and doubt. He will become a persona non grata in European power circles. In all honestly, I don’t even see him surviving the first year of his new term.

But hey! What are you all doing still reading this, anyway? Egrant is ‘no longer an important issue’, remember? It is now a ‘secondary concern’. Clearly, I am wasting your time...

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