Over-familiarity breeds corruption

This inquiry should cast a light on how a number of inexplicable permits – some in violation of policies – were approved; and come out with clear recommendations for an overhaul of the planning system and a redress for past mistakes

Prime Minister Robert Abela is wrong to absolve former PA chair Johann Buttigieg from wrongdoing, simply because he never actually “did business with Yorgen Fenech.”

In so doing, he seems to be repeating the same mistake he committed with regard to Rosianne Cutajar: where he downplayed the issue of over-familiarity, and only acted tardily when an accumulation of details around an alleged property deal with Fenech made her position even more untenable.

But Abela is wrong, not just because he reached a conclusion in the absence of any formal investigation. In this case, the familiarity is between Malta’s planning chief from 2013 to 2019, and a business tycoon whose family has been a beneficiary of planning policies devised while Buttigieg was at the helm.

In making such an assessment, Abela should also weigh whether this over-familiarity with Fenech had a bearing on public policy. He may be justified in ignoring cases where this relationship had no bearing on decision-making; but he can’t ignore cases where it had.

Moreover, in this case matters are also overshadowed by talk on a possible business partnership: something which should not even have crossed the mind of a high-ranking planning official.

What comes across in the WhatsApp chats is the now familiar pattern of public officials being deferential to a business tycoon, who – despite being exposed as the owner of 17 Black – actively traded in influence.

In the conversation, Fenech specifically asked Buttigieg if he could identify any promising developments by Gozitan developer Joe Portelli that he could take over as settlement for debt, as he did not have the patience to go through all the developments himself.

As reported, Buttigieg did not shoot down the offer as he should have done: instead, he expressed his willingness to do business with Fenech, but not on that particular deal.

Buttigieg even sent his recommendations about which development Fenech should try to take from Portelli: “Take the one in Qormi. Opposite the post office. It’s a good one.”

Such informal discussions on projects, during dinners or friendly one-to-one WhatsApp conversations, is not acceptable. Neither should public officials receive gifts, as may well have been the case when Buttigieg asked Fenech if he could arrange for him to skip the queue at the Level 22 club at Portomaso.

One clear risk of this over-familiarity is that it casts a long dark shadow on past permits issued during Johann Buttigieg’s controversial tenure. On another level, Buttigieg’s connections with Fenech also weigh in on his present role as CEO of the Malta Tourism Authority: which also regulates an industry in which the Fenechs are heavily involved.

While it is true that Buttigieg does not have a vote on the Planning Board, he does have influence: not just at the planning stage or in the recommendations issued by the Planning Directorate, but also during board meetings where he often expressed his opinions which probably had a bearing on a board composed mainly of government appointees.

This must be seen in context of past decisions by Buttigieg: like that of using public money to pay for a private jet to ensure the participation of a government appointed board member who voted for the DB project in Pembroke.

Questions must also be asked about a number of decisions taken by the PA involving Tumas Group: including the controversial Halland Hotel in Swieqi, and the inclusion of Mrieħel in the high-rise zone.

It is also clear that since Buttigieg’s departure, the Planning Board has become more cautious on approving mega developments, and more sensitive to the concerns expressed by the public.

In short, this case casts a long shadow over the planning decision-making process under Buttigieg. Besides: the kid-gloves approach by Abela towards Buttigieg raises questions on whether Buttigieg – who often willingly took the role of punching bag for decisions taken higher up in Castille – holds the key to many secrets which may potentially lead to Malta’s delayed ‘tangentopoli moment’.

For while Abela is partly right in saying that the institutions are finally working – as demonstrated by police action against a former CEO of the gaming authority, and by progress on cases involving Keith Schembri – he also has to address the roots of the problem, which is the incestuous relationship between the political class and big business: which, in the case of Fenech, also brought organised crime into the equation.

Moreover, Abela’s position is compromised by his own role as the former lawyer of the Planning Authority: in which he must have worked closely with Buttigieg.

This makes it even more imperative for Abela to grab the bull by the horns by insisting on Buttigieg’s resignation; and, more importantly, to call for a public inquiry on the actions of the Planning Authority in the past years.

This inquiry should cast a light on how a number of inexplicable permits – some in violation of policies – were approved; and come out with clear recommendations for an overhaul of the planning system and a redress for past mistakes.

Anything less would be sweeping the problem under the carpet.