'Begging your pardon'

As many had long suspected, the fuel procurement scandal revealed the existence of a deep-rooted culture of ‘give and take’ that pervaded parts of the civil service

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Ever since MaltaToday first broke the story about corruption in the fuel procurement procedures of Enemalta in 2013, there has been a distinct sensation that only a small part of the truth had so far come into view.

From the inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee, it emerged that the initial bribes, paid in exchange for oil trading contracts, were not one-off affairs. As many had long suspected, the scandal revealed the existence of a deep-rooted culture of ‘give and take’ that pervaded parts of the civil service: whereby ‘gifts’ are expected to be traded by influence over the decision-making process.

George Farrugia, the oil trader at the heart of the scandal, admitted that he gave such ‘gifts’ beyond the financial bribes paid in exchange for oil purchasing contracts. Apart from the much-publicised clock given to then Finance Minister (also responsible for energy) Tonio Fenech’s wife, there were other donations, including to the deputy chairman. Farrugia even argued that he had ‘no option’ but to pay bribes.

Even so, the PAC hearings gave the impression that the public admissions of Farrugia represented only the tip of the iceberg. The revelations in themselves did not widen the net of investigation further enough to make subsequent arrests. Yet the condition for the Presidential pardon for George Farrugia was precisely to reveal the whole truth about the scandal.

After this newspaper published more emails last Sunday, it has become evident that much was withheld from the PAC. Farrugia had told the Maltese police in 2013 that he had no further backhand dealings to report on for the period after 2005, and that he had told them everything he knew. It is clear from the emails that he knew more.

In April 2009, George Farrugia made arrangements for the former head of energy regulation at the Malta Resources Authority, Godwin Sant to receive football tickets in the UK from oil giant Trafigura as a gift. Sant has since been questioned by the police over this affair, and it must be pointed out that this latest twist to the investigation only came about because of revelations in the media: and not because of anything uncovered by either the PAC inquiry or the police investigation.

One can only wonder how much else has been withheld during these inquiries. Either way, it is clear that the official procedures (if the Presidential pardon issued in this case can even be described as orthodox) failed to delve deeply enough into the matter at hand. Nor did the Public Accounts Committee succeed in unearthing such details: perhaps unsurprisingly, as many of its questions were concerned more with the political fall-out than with the facts.

All this points to a systemic failure in the way the various institutions involved approach issues of high-level corruption. Reacting to our Sunday story Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced that his government would reconsider the pardon granted under the previous administration in 2013. Already there are reports quoting legal experts who claim this will ‘complicate matters’. 

This is precisely the crux of the matter. The pardon in itself complicated the matter from the outset, because – as we had previously seen in the case of Zeppi l-Hafi in 1994 – the legislative mechanism governing pardons in this country are not at all clear.

There is, for instance, no guarantee that a recipient of a pardon would, in fact, reveal the whole truth as a result. Moreover evidence obtained in this way is not by definition fool-proof… though case history suggests that it is treated as such by investigators. In the Zeppi l-Hafi case, the testimony of the pardoned suspect was presented as evidence without any corroboration. It was eventually rejected by the courts.

Then as now, there are no clear legal procedures that spring into action when confronted with an ineffective and counter-productive Presidential pardon. And while a decision certainly has to be taken with regard to Farrugia, it would be a mistake to once again approach this issue in a piecemeal, haphazard way. 

This case has once again exposed an urgent need to establish unequivocal rules of engagement, including: when a pardon should be granted; how to ensure that the pardon does elicit the required information; and above all, clear parameters regarding whether and how a pardon should ever be revoked.

In the oil trading scandal alone, one must perforce question why the pardon was originally granted. Former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi testified that he acted on the advice of the Police Commissioner; but Rizzo’s testimony does not quite say this. So it remains unclear why the Police Commissioner felt it was necessary, especially considering how little the pardon went on reveal. 

All it achieved in practice was to give Farrugia a (seemingly unconditional) ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card.

Revoking that pardon could create a legal precedent and procedural difficulties, as lawyers have warned. But the fact remains that this may be necessary, if we are to uncover the whole picture of the corruption network in this case.

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