Vitals: A story of two weights and two measures

Castille is already acting like a legal office at large in Joseph Muscat’s defence even if the Prime Minister denies this. Robert Abela’s mannerisms and words are those of a lawyer and not a prime minister. 

When Keith Schembri, Adrian Hillman and several others were charged with corruption and money laundering a few years back, they were first interrogated and then arraigned under arrest. 

They even spent some time in jail since the magistrate initially denied them bail. 

All those involved in that case have pleaded not guilty and proceedings against them are still dragging on in court. 

We bring up this case because it highlights the stark difference between how the police and the Attorney General acted back then and how they are behaving now. 

In the Vitals case – a far more serious matter that involves millions of euros of tax money that went to waste and lined the pockets of the few – the police have opted to charge all suspects by summons. 

The police did not have the temerity to call in Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi, Edward Scicluna and Chris Fearne for questioning and arraign them under arrest. Instead, the police opted to charge them by summons as if this was an ordinary neighbourly dispute; or a case of road rage. 

The police and the AG may have legal and strategic reasons for adopting this strategy. But from a layman’s perspective, it sends out the message that the police have no interest in digging deeper and will simply be relying on the magistrate’s inquiry for proof. 

Once again, from a layman’s perspective, this could mean either of two things: The magistrate did such a meticulous job that handed the police and the AG a watertight case thus more than justifying the four years it took to conclude the inquiry; or else the prosecution is simply washing its hands of the matter by relying solely on the evidence secured by the magistrate with little or no concern if the case would falter on a technicality or lack of proof. 

The prosecution’s strategy thus far has allowed Muscat to cry foul because he has not been given the chance to explain himself and provide evidence to the contrary. We have no doubt that he would have cried foul just the same but the two weights and two measures adopted by the police – in the Schembri-Hillman case and the Vitals case – justifiably raises eyebrows. 

The police must explain why it chose a different path in the Vitals case. We only hope that this strategy was not the result of pressure from Castille. 

Castille is already acting like a legal office at large in Muscat’s defence even if the Prime Minister denies this. Robert Abela’s mannerisms and words are those of a lawyer and not a prime minister.

Suffice to say that Abela’s comments to journalists earlier in the week in which he emphasised profusely that the suspects in the Vitals case will remain free even after court proceedings start – a situation that came about because the prosecution decided to proceed by summons – suggest that Castille may be dictating how the prosecution conducts its business. We just hope this is not the case. 

Instead of taking Muscat’s side, the Prime Minister should be working to restore credibility and steer the country diligently through the choppy waters. 

Within this context, Chris Fearne’s resignation from deputy prime minister and Cabinet was the right thing to do. Fearne lived up to his own yardstick of asking people answerable to him to step aside pending the outcome of investigations. 

When Fearne’s campaign manager Carmen Ciantar ended up in the line of fire because of corruption allegations reported in obscure Pakistani websites last year, she voluntarily suspended herself from head of the Foundation for Medical Services and asked the police to investigate her. 

The Ciantar case fizzled into thin air because the allegations proved to be false but the temporary suspension was testament to Ciantar’s and Fearne’s rectitude. 

By standing down from his Cabinet post and relinquishing his nomination for European Commissioner, Fearne will allow the judicial process to proceed serenely without the added pressure of having to deal with a member of the executive. 

But more importantly, in his resignation letter, Fearne showed respect to the institutions and not once did he try to denigrate the judiciary, while insisting he will prove his innocence in court. 

Fearne’s example should be emulated by others indicated as suspects in the Vitals affair. 

For there is a sense of two weights and two measures at play here. 

People in the employ of the civil service are normally suspended when they face criminal charges. This time around the Prime Minister has said he will be making that judgement himself based on the inquiry findings. He insisted there will be no automatic resignations or suspensions for the public officials who will be charged. 

The Prime Minister’s attitude does not surprise us and goes some way in explaining the questionable Cabinet decision taken recently to lift suspensions on public service employees who are facing criminal charges. A beneficiary of this policy was a former top official at Transport Malta who is facing sexual harassment charges and who was reinstated at Infrastructure Malta. 

People like Edward Scicluna, the governor of the Central Bank of Malta, and permanent secretary Ronald Mizzi, should step down from their public roles pending the outcome of the cases against them.