Missing the wood for the trees

Former Enemalta chairman Alex Tranter’s arraignment on misuse of the company credit card is a separate issue which takes us no nearer or further from the truth about the oil scandal which rocked this country less than two years ago

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

This week it was announced that former Enemalta chairman Alex Tranter will be facing criminal charges for fraud and misappropriation of public funds, including misuse of the company credit card, and exaggerated perks and expenses.

Given that evidence for this alleged fraud emerged during the investigation into the Trafigura bribery scandal, one might be forgiven for interpreting it as a new development in the ongoing inquiry. But it isn’t. It is merely the result of a parallel investigation which, while arguably merited, is not in itself in any way related to the payment of commissions for Enemalta oil procurement between 1999 and 2006.

In other words, Tranter’s arraignment on these charges is a separate issue which takes us no nearer or further from the truth about the oil scandal which rocked this country less than two years ago. Since the testimony of oil trader George Farrugia – who had been given a Presidential pardon in 2013 – before the public accounts committee last January, little has emerged from these inquiries that was not already known. In fact, apart from criminal charges levelled at former chairman Tancred Tabone and six other Enemalta officials, over allegations that had been in the public domain almost since the very start, the situation regarding this bribery scandal remains virtually unchanged.

Yet a separate, tangential inquiry into a much lesser case of fraud has already been started and concluded, resulting in charges against Alex Tranter. Without entering into the merits of this case, the juxtaposition of events suggests we may be missing the wood for the trees. It is as though an investigation into the much bigger crime – a corruption scandal spanning at least seven years, and which cost the country dearly in terms of fuel expenditure – has been side-tracked in favour of a minor case limited only to the alleged misdemeanours of a single public official.

This in turn suggests two possibilities: either the investigation into the oil scandal has hit an impasse; or both the police and the parliamentary inquiries have simply lost interest in getting to the bottom of the one case that really matters.

In a sense, this would not be too surprising. The PAC hearings have from the outset seemed less interested in unearthing the truth about this matter, than in capitalising on the issue for entirely political reasons. When questioning George Farrugia, Nationalist MPs seemed more keen to pursue an allegation that Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia had known about the kickbacks since 2010, than to find out who had masterminded the entire racket.

More seriously, efforts were also made to expose the leak that had resulted in the original MaltaToday story. The police even took their cue from this, and tried to force this newspaper to divulge the information through a writ in court.

Clearly, the purpose behind these efforts was to deflect attention from the fact that George Farrugia was being pressed about all the wrong details, which even resulted in charges pressed against the editor of the newspaper which broke the story.

This raises serious questions about the Presidential pardon granted to Farrugia by the Gonzi administration right before the last election. Farrugia was granted immunity from prosecution so that he could freely divulge information about the payment of kickbacks on Enemalta’s oil procurement over seven years. Yet the Opposition, which originally gave him that pardon, did not seem interested in using it to extract the information for which it was given. Instead it used it to muddy the issue and create diversions.

Government members, on the other hand, proved incapable of extracting much more. Minister Owen Bonnici even complained that the committee had got more information out of Frank Sammut, who was not given any pardon, than from the man at the heart of the allegations.

Unless Farrugia is called to testify again, it is clear that nothing new will come of the Presidential pardon granted by the Gonzi administration before the 2013 election. Once again, the entire procedure used has created the whiff of suspicion that the pardon had been given for all the wrong reasons: to prevent the release of information, rather than to permit it.

Even so, Farrugia’s testimony did raise questions that should be of interest to those tasked with investigating this case. But everything seems to indicate that the investigation is winding down towards a gradual (and inconclusive) closure. If so, the country will be left none the wiser after two years of official inquiries at the highest level. This is unacceptable, more so because of the high price the country has already had to pay in connection with this case.

The issue cannot be allowed to run out of steam. The Labour administration came to power in March 2013 precisely on a promise to bring to light all the details regarding this scandal… yet two years and countless PAC hearings later, virtually no new details have come to light.

Not enough has been done to fulfil this promise. It would be regrettable to conclude that Labour was only interested in fanning the flames for its own political advantage; and now sees no point in pursuing it any further.

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