Is this Malta’s ‘tangentopoli’ moment?

One way of addressing this problem of mistrust is to strengthen anti-corruption structures through the appointment of a special inquiring magistrate equipped with a dedicated office and staff, entrusted with investigating and prosecuting corruption cases

Three Transport Malta officials have been charged with corruption on Monday for helping candidates pass their theory and practical driving tests in a case that goes back to at least 2020.

While this case once again reinforces the perception of widespread corruption and clientelism which is eroding public trust in the institutions, it also suggests that the police are finally taking action irrespective of the inevitable political fall-out.

In a sense this may well represent Malta’s most welcome ‘tangentopoli’ moment - the police seem to have uncovered a racket which may well have a political snowball effect.

This is a most welcome development considering the institutional paralysis and impunity on cases of high level corruption related to the various spin offs from the Panama Papers, on which one still expects action.

This particular case is all the more blatant as it suggests that public institutions have been hijacked by officials who are willing to use their office to help the chosen few in cheating their way to something as mundane and basic as a driving test.

Here we are not talking of multi-million contracts but about an exam which thousands of people pass every year, even if it takes some multiple tries.

Obviously, this also raises the question; if public officials are willing to sacrifice their integrity for something as basic as a driving test, how far will they go when their decisions can result in millions of euros of profits?

By allegedly helping a few candidates cheat, the public officials involved were not only discriminating against law abiding citizens by violating the principle of meritocracy but also endangering public safety.

For if the allegations are proven, it also means that people who may well have failed their driving exams had they not been ‘helped’ are currently posing a danger to others who have to share the roads with them.

Moreover, irrespective of any direct ministerial involvement, there is an element of political responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. The idea of ‘helping’ and ‘being close to the people’ is so pervasive that it is being abused even in helping people get a driving licence without studying for it.

But there is also another twist to the case which merits a lot of reflection.

Under police questioning, one of the accused told police that he was pressured by a minister, who was not named in court, into helping certain individuals pass their driving test. The individuals allegedly were working on the minister’s villa.

It is therefore crucial that these claims are fully investigated.  For while one cannot exclude a defence strategy aimed at causing maximum collateral damage, any grounds substantiating claims of ministerial involvement in such blatant corruption should lead to immediate resignations.

Yet here lies the crunch of the matter. One cannot expect ministers to resign simply because someone being prosecuted casually drops their name. This would be unfair and would set a dangerous precedent exposing any minister to the revenge of anyone taken to court.

Yet at the same time, Italy’s ‘tangentopoli’ scandal from the 1990s showed that these cataclysmic events often start with minor officials dropping information that involves bigger fish. The end result would be a snowball effect that leads to uncovering systemic corruption, nepotism and clientelism.

Technically it is up to the police to establish whether there are enough grounds to warrant prosecution or not and we should trust their judgement.

It is only when the police or the inquiring magistrate finds enough grounds for prosecution that one would expect public officials to immediately tender their resignation. In short, any minister under reasonable suspicion of abuse cannot remain in office. But someone has to establish whether these grounds exist.

Yet mistrust in the police and their willingness to go all the way in such cases involving members of the political caste, is leading to a catch-22 situation.

This mistrust is rooted in the historical reality of post-independence Malta, in which no politician was ever prosecuted and condemned for corruption.

To change this state of affairs the police, have to earn the public trust, which was further eroded by inaction after the Panama Papers.

The Transport Malta case represents a golden opportunity for the police to prove otherwise; not by jumping the gun but by following all leads and also explain to the public when such leads go nowhere.

One way of addressing this problem of mistrust is to strengthen anti-corruption structures through the appointment of a special inquiring magistrate equipped with a dedicated office and staff, entrusted with investigating and prosecuting corruption cases.

Moreover, Malta could also criminalise the ‘abuse of public office.’ Following the Italian and French models. Such a law would criminalise the abuse of public office both in cases where the officer seeks to obtain “unjust advantage” for themselves or others but also when they “abuse of the trust” placed upon them by negligence in a way, which involves loss to the public.  This would give investigators more tools in investigating such cases beyond that accorded by laws against trading in influence.

This is why the government should not shun proposals made by the Opposition at the start of the year and instead seek an agreement resulting in robust mechanisms which enjoy wide political consensus.

Moreover, we also need to limit the number of ‘persons of trust’ in the various ministries many of which are dedicated to addressing the needs of constituents. People of trust should be kept at a bare minimum and such officials should be accountable to public service rules.