A legion of small fry

The government is claiming to have advice from the Attorney General that what so many consumers and businesses did in paying the perpetrators of the rigged meters, is not bribery. The law seems to differ on this point.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

 

There is no underestimating the level of outrage at news that some 1,000 customers of Enemalta, both domestic users as well as businesses, may not be charged under criminal provisions for the bribery and corruption of public servants.

The law reads simply enough: somebody who induces a public servant, as an Enemalta employee is, to tamper an electricity meter by causing him to forbear what he is duty-bound to do, is also guilty of bribery. A 'simple' act of bribery is instantly effected when somebody offers a public servant a reward, in whatever form, for the very duty they are carrying out as part of their work; for even suggesting a reward to carry out the duty or not carrying it out, or to do something so as to bring about an undue benefit to the recipient.

What has taken place inside and outside of Enemalta has been clear to everyone who has a basic sense of what's right and wrong. An organised racket by employees and other pen-pushing officers managed to spread its tentacles across a select network of willing consumers and businesses, who feel there is nothing wrong in stealing water and electricity from the national energy corporation.

It is a grave act of theft whose immorality is no less grievous than similar offences, like tax evasion, which are based on robbing a country's and a community's resources.

Yet again, the grand meter theft has been a reminder of the scale of corruption that is ingrained in the Maltese psyche, being committed by public servants who have access to information and services that allows them to offer consumers illegal benefits. The same was witnessed in similar other cases where government servants created similar rackets in the cancellation of VAT dues and fines, or the issuance of mariners' licences for those who did not sit for the exam duly required for such a licence.

The Labour government is claiming to have advice from the Attorney General that what so many consumers and businesses did in paying the perpetrators of the rigged meters, is not bribery. The law seems to differ on this point.

Even more serious is the impression the government is giving, that such artful acts of bribery can be instantly forgiven by repaying what is rightfully due. In this case, we note that the government in 2006, when Enemalta was under the stewardship of Austin Gatt, allowed the chairman of the energy corporation to waive criminal procedures on the theft of energy by imposing an administrative penalty over and above the repayment of all energy illegally consumed, with interest. We understand that the payment of such a penalty might protect defaulters from being criminally charged for theft, since they recognise that guilty by paying the administrative penalty.

But the government's claims that it is after the big fish, and not interested in carrying out a witch-hunt on the consumers who bribed the public servants, is something that one finds hard to understand.

In the main, we are being led to believe - given the scale of the millions in energy theft that the country has seen over the past decade - that these consumers benefited over and above the sum they might have paid to the Enemalta employees to have their smart meters tampered. This fact alone only reconfirms the double element involved in the act of bribery: that one party has acquiesced to bribe the other, so that he can avail himself of a benefit he is not legally entitled to.

So there is no surprise in understanding the outrage of common taxpayers who believe in the rule of law, who have a sense of common decency, and who do not buy into the so called 'arte di arrangiarsi' - the act of getting by, be it by legal or illegal ways, and getting away with it too... they demand that a government allows the police force to proceed with the onerous process of charging whoever bribed the Enemalta officials, and let the course of justice take place.

Even if the government was trying to evade the potential headache of having to charge so many people on bribery, there is no doubt that the common man in the street will not buy into the 'big fish' excuse the government is pushing: who then, are the legions of small fry who stole thousands from the embattled energy corporation so that they could enjoy free energy at the cost of the honest taxpayer?

If the government was serious about the financial state of Enemalta, if it was serious about the integrity of our public services and transparency in justice, it would set an example by having the police prosecute the bribed, and the bribers.

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