The will and the tools to fight corruption

Six long years after Daphne’s murder it would appear that at best political pique is to blame for the lack of a comprehensive effort to combat corruption; and at worst politicians are complacent with criminals and do not want to rock the boat

Six years after Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered because of the sleaze and corruption she uncovered, the country’s ability to prosecute financial crime and corruption remains a big question mark.

The police force’s Financial Crimes Investigation Department (FCID) was bolstered and is now one of the bigger sections within the corps. But this unit has over the past months experienced turmoil in terms of human resources that has put a damper on motivation.

It has to be acknowledged that the Malta Financial Services Authority (MFSA) and the Financial Intelligence and Analysis Unit (FIAU) are today miles ahead of what they were in 2019. Boosted with more human resources and automated systems that made their analysis more efficient, these authorities now have more bite.

Yet, this is still not enough and six years down the line the authorities have to renew their commitment to fight financial crime and corruption tooth and nail. This includes investigating and prosecuting the big fish who gravitate in and around the country’s power structures.

Adequate financial and human resources must be provided but more importantly there has to be the political will to clean up the mess by allowing the institutions the space to work unhindered.

Prosecutions involving financial crime, including money laundering, increased over the past few years as police targeted individuals with suspect amounts of wealth that did not match their declared income.

Police also used money laundering legislation to charge suspects with financial crimes alongside other more obvious charges such as drug trafficking. In this way, the police are not only going after the predicate offence but also targeting the money flows.

However, there is this increasing feeling that the flurry of cases brought to court up until last year were a knee-jerk reaction to Malta’s greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Now that Malta has been taken off the grey list, things appear to have calmed down.

More significantly, high profile financial crime cases involving people who were close to the Joseph Muscat administration continue to drag on in court with no end in sight. Prosecutions on their own are not enough unless these reach sentencing stage within a reasonable timeframe.

In two relatively recent rackets – the disability allowance scheme by which the State was defrauded millions and the odometer scandal by which customers were cheated by second hand car importers – the masterminds behind these scams have not been charged yet. This may be strategically intentioned to first prosecute the small fish who could then potentially testify against the organisers. But if this is the case, it certainly does not seem so from the outside with prosecutors appearing as if they are unwilling to go after the big fish.

And in the latest scandal to erupt – the driving licence affair – the Prime Minister has even gone on record to defend the dubious actions of government customer care officials and their political masters. Police have charged three Transport Malta officials with the scam but WhatsApp messages published in the media show customer care officials forwarding lists of prospective driving test candidates to be helped. Unfortunately, for the Prime Minister this is all fair game.

Beyond the action that still needs to be taken or taken more forcefully, new legal tools may be necessary to help law enforcement fight corruption.

Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO) are one such tool. They oblige persons suspected of corruption or other serious crimes to explain the origin of their wealth and discrepancies between their legitimate sources of income and the value of their assets.

According to the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative UWOs are a “civil, not criminal action and can be an invaluable tool in asset recovery cases in which cross-border identification and tracing of criminal and corrupt assets is a challenge for relevant investigative agencies and prosecutors”.

The introduction of UWOs was one of several anti-corruption measures proposed by the three judges who presided the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death.

Unfortunately, this proposal like many others made by the inquiry was not implemented and there does not seem to be the appetite for UWOs to be introduced anytime soon.

Similarly, a proposal to introduce laws regulating lobbying and the communication between politicians and business remain elusive.

A proposal to introduce a law criminalising the obstruction of justice by government officials also remains unimplemented.

Six long years after Daphne’s murder it would appear that at best political pique is to blame for the lack of a comprehensive effort to combat corruption; and at worst politicians are complacent with criminals and do not want to rock the boat.