Too little, too late

At a glance, the Frans Sammut case appears to answer many of the questions raised by Malta’s highly dubious energy situation.

On Sunday, MaltaToday exposed the workings of a racket whereby an Enemalta oil procurement board consultant allegedly took kickbacks on oil purchased by the state energy provider - at a time when the same person, Frank Sammut, also doubled up as a consultant to the company from which the fuel was bought.

At a glance this revelation appears to answer many of the questions raised by Malta's highly dubious energy situation.

Among them: why did the government choose - first in 2003, and then again in 2008 - to disregard professional advice to convert Malta's power generation capacity to run on natural gas... and instead stick to oil, knowing full well that this policy would have to change in a few years anyway?

This was a policy decision taken almost exactly a decade ago: i.e., shortly after former minister Josef Bonnici had been replaced by Austin Gatt.

No satisfactory explanation has ever been forthcoming to account for this change in policy... prompting former Enemalta manager Joe Pace to question it publicly in a recent press article.

Sunday's revelations shed light on at least one possibility.... that a changeover to gas would have cost at least one person a very large amount of money in illicit revenue... although this was strongly denied by Tonio Fenech when stating that Enemalta allegations were not connected to government's decision to not opt for gas.

The same theory may also explain other questionable energy-related decisions, too. Following a second decision (in 2008) to once again pass up an opportunity to convert to gas, Malta entered into a highly contentious agreement with Danish firm BWSC for the provision of a then untested technology running on heavy fuel oil: the most pollutant of all the oil-based fuels available.

Not only was this in obvious defiance of Malta's draft energy policy at the time - but the national maximum emission levels also had to be increased to accommodate BWSC's technology, at a time when the call for tenders was still in midstream.

Nor was this the only fly in the ointment. Apart from raising very serious questions regarding Malta's procurement regime, there was even evidence that the bidders, BWSC, had been in contact with members of the political establishment, in clear breach of all known public tendering norms.

Emails surfaced in which BWSC officials were urged to "tap sources higher up in the political hierarchy" - a damning revelation, which suggests that a 'lower level' in that same hierarchy had already been infiltrated.

Yet government's response to such damning evidence of wrongdoing has always been to simply sweep all suspicions under the carpet.

Separately, the same government has also dragged its feet over implementing a Whistleblower's Act , which would offer protection to anyone coming forward with evidence of corruption in any given business or corporation.

Nor is it just this case that illustrates the urgent need for such an article of legislation. Even a former Nationalist candidate for the European Parliament, Dr Frank Portelli - the director of St Philip's Hospital - in August 2009 claimed he would be willing to reveal Enemalta officials he believed were on the take, but only if whistleblowers' legislation were in force.

Despite various commitments to enact this law it remains inoperative in Malta. With hindsight, it is easy to see a pattern of behaviour in all this. Government has proved less than keen on enacting legislation which would facilitate the exposure of corruption. And this in itself can only undermine the government's credibility when it comes to the fight against foul play.

Now that there is compelling documentary evidence that oil procurement deals by Enemalta involved kickbacks to a fuel purchase committee member, government's reaction has been surprisingly weak.

First off, the Prime Minister demanded a police investigation, only to be told by the Police Commissioner that the police had already started their investigations following the media report. 

Later, government tried to claim that it had taken action against Sammut by removing him from his position as CEO of MOBC.

Besides: even if we accept this line of argument, it doesn't put governmentn in the clear. If government was aware of the kickbacks, it should have also reported the matter to the police in 2004 - instead of simply removing the culprit without seeing to it that justice was done.

Sunday's revelation may therefore go some distance towards unravelling many of the mysteries associate with Malta's energy sector. But there is one mystery that the receipts and invoices do not, in themselves, address.

Given that Lawrence Gonzi has so often insisted on a 'zero tolerance' attitude towards corruption.... and given also that the fight against corruption had charceterised the PN's resounding battlecry from the 1980s -why has the presenting Nationalist government been so lacking in vigilance on so many occasions?

Warning signs of possible corruption in the energy department had been blaring from every loudspeaker for years.

For Gonzi to demand a police investigation only now - when the fat is already sizzling away in the fire - is a classic case of too little, too late.

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Luke Camilleri
Kollhu tort ta' Joseph Muscat.... tghidlhiex kif IMMA TORT TIEGHU!