The ethical bar needs to be raised

As things stand, the best course is for Rosianne Cutajar to take the back seat, suspend herself from the party, and only seek re-election if cleared by the tax probe already commenced by the police

By confirming Rosianne Cutajar’s exclusion from the Cabinet, after the damning conclusions of Standards Commissioner George Hyzler, the PM has applied a clear yardstick to this case, and stuck to it.

For Abela had already made it clear in February that he would not retain cabinet members found to be in breach of ethical standards.  In so doing he has also raised the bar for other Cabinet Members and gave due recognition to the Office of the Commissioner for Standards.

In this respect, Abela has acted correctly. On her part, however, Cutajar’s reaction was marked by a distinct lack of contrition. To date she still denies having behaved unethically: insisting that she was merely intervening in the property deal on behalf of a friend; and that she did not pocket any money from the deal; even if she admits receiving a suspicious €9,000 euro birthday gift from Yorgen Fenech.

Surely, sheer proximity to - and friendship with - Fenech is not reason enough to demand a resignation: even if Cutajar was well aware of Fenech’s offshore businesses at the time; and, more crucially, of the direct link between 17 Black and offshore companies owned by Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.

Yet one has to concede that the proximity of Fenech to Joseph Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri, also gave him ‘legitimacy’ within Labour circles; and that members of the political class across the political divide have actively courted Yorgen Fenech and other members of his family for years.

Yet the case investigated by the standards commissioner went beyond sheer proximity to the businessmen alone.  Hzyler also found himself investigating whether she did, in fact, pocket €46,000 by brokering the Mdina deal. And he has found evidence that indicates she did pocket the money and failed to declare it.

Surely, Cutajar has every right to state her own version of the facts.  But she herself acknowledged that she had handed the €31,000 she received from Fenech to Farrugia; moreover, her position was rendered even more untenable by a police investigation on alleged tax evasion commenced in February.

Indirectly, this has allowed both the PN and Republika to raise the stakes, by demanding that Abela also kick out Cutajar from the PL parliamentary group (as he had done with Konrad Mizzi).

One thing must be made clear in this: it is entirely up to Cutajar whether to retain her seat or not;  in fact, Konrad Mizzi has retained his seat, despite being expelled from the PL group.

What the Labour Party can do, however, is expel Cutajar from the parliamentary group, and refuse her candidature in the next general election.

This may indeed become inevitable if enough evidence is found by the police to prosecute Cutajar for tax evasion. But it may be premature at the moment.  In this case, the commissioner has himself asked the tax authorities to investigate Cutajar’s involvement in the property deal. So in a sense his verdict - while based on evidence - may not be final, at least as regards the tax evasion charge.

Yet Cutajar is only complicating matters, by not only refusing to relinquish her parliamentary seat, but has already announced her intention to contest the election again with the Labour party. Surely it does not make sense to compare Cutajar’s ethical breach to that of Konrad Mizzi: who despite having not yet been charged, faces much more serious allegations of impropriety and possible corruption related to the Panama Papers, the VITALS hospital deal,  and the Montenegro wind farm scandal.

But Cutajar’s presence on the Labour ticket would still be problematic, especially if she contests with the party while facing a tax evasion probe.  Yet even here comparisons can be odious (one cannot but recall that the opposition leader himself settled pending tax bills on the eve of contesting for PN leader).

In a sense, then, her exclusion would also raise the bar for MPs on both sides of the fence facing tax evasion charges.  After all, what’s sauce for the goose, should also be sauce for the gander.

Still with Malta being grey-listed by the FATF  - which has demanded action specifically on tax evasion - raising this bar is also clearly the right thing to do.

As things stand, the best course is for Rosianne Cutajar to take the back seat, suspend herself from the party, and only seek re-election if cleared by the tax probe already commenced by the police.

We say this with some regret: recognizing Cutajar’s contribution to parliamentary debate as a consistent liberal voice on a variety of issues; and also because this makes her a target for conservative and misogynistic attacks on her person (as was the case when she was labelled a prostitute).

But the bigger risk is that Cutajar will herself do more harm than good by associating these issues with her tainted political persona.  She should know better than to dig in her heels.