Shooting the messenger is not an option

In January 2013, MaltaToday published a cache of emails which revealed how former MOBC chief Frank Sammut had received a bribe from oil giant Trafigura in 2003 over oil procurement. 

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Testifying before the Public Accounts Committee, former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi declared that this newspaper’s revelations of corruption in Enemalta’s fuel procurement, published in January 2013, had been ‘politically motivated’ to harm the Nationalist Party’s interests ahead of the March 2013 elections.

This accusation, which has now been echoed by Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, cannot be taken lightly. Nor does it represent a truthful representation of the events leading to the publication of the incriminating emails.

In January 2013, MaltaToday published a cache of emails which revealed how former MOBC chief Frank Sammut had received a bribe from oil giant Trafigura in 2003 over oil procurement. This triggered a presidential pardon for oil trader George Farrugia – the middleman in the bribe – who told the police he had also paid bribes to Enemalta chairman Tancred Tabone. 

In all, seven people have so far been arrested in connection with this scandal, which had flourished unchecked for years. 

Gonzi’s insinuation that the story was broken for political reasons overlooks a significant detail. The same emails published by this newspaper in January 2013 had been forwarded to him five years earlier, in 2008. Gonzi had these emails handed over to the head of the Security Service, and the case was eventually forwarded to the Tax Compliance Unit for a tax audit. But no criminal investigation ever took place before the story broke in January 2013.

From this perspective, both Gonzi’s and Busuttil’s complaints seem ill-advised. 

“This case goes back 10 years and was revealed in the general election campaign,” Busuttil said this week. “Why did those who had this information not go to the police straight away?” 

And yet this same information had already been in the possession of the authorities for five years. Busuttil’s question therefore rebounds on his own party. Why was no action taken in all that time? What was the ‘political motivation’ in neglecting to pursue the course of justice, in a case which would have revealed a corruption scandal taking place under the previous administration?

The implication of Gonzi’s complaint is that he would much rather this information never became public at all… as indeed it hadn’t, on his watch. It is the information itself, and not the timing of its release, that tarnishes the credentials of his former government.

It is easy to see why the former government would be so reluctant for the full story to emerge. Judging by what we now know about the scale of corruption – little of which has emerged from the police investigation, it must be said – there was clearly much more to the scandal than has been revealed by Farrugia through the presidential pardon. Emails published subsequently reveal the strong hold Farrugia had over Resources Authority director Godwin Sant, and which he exerted until at least 2010. It is far from accurate to portray the revelations as concerning something that happened only 10 years earlier.

Nor does it make sense to question the timing of the story on the eve of an election, when the same story had already been ‘leaked’ to officialdom – with no results – five years earlier. As things stand, the only discernible ‘political motivation’ was that of Gonzi’s own government, which evidently preferred to sit on incriminating information, rather than act on it. 

At this point one must ask what caused the greater harm to the Nationalist Party’s interests in the March 2013 election: the publication of this story, or the Nationalist government’s failure to rein in rogue elements within the public service when it had the chance.

One must also question whether there was political motivation behind the failure to arraign the Farrugia brothers before March 9, 2013. The Opposition now complains that no further arrests were made since the change of government, even though Inspector Angelo Gafa testified that he had drafted arrest warrants before June 2013. Simon Busuttil duly points towards the involvement of former Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia – defence lawyer to the Farrugia brothers – as the reason why these charges were dropped. 

The truth, however, appears to be more complex. The entire political establishment, it seems, has been uncomfortable with taking action directly against the Farrugias since the scandal was first brought to light. In the case of the former government, it was the closeness of this family to the Nationalist Party, its dealings with individual ministers involved in the oil sector, and its influence over decisions taken by the government, that seems to have been a factor.

Moreover, Gonzi’s approach does not sit comfortably with the same Prime Minister’s declared commitment to protect whistleblowers – the Whistleblowers’ Act that was later passed by the present administration.

Gonzi’s latest comments can only add to the impression of a political and administrative culture which tends to shoot the messenger, rather than absorb the message. It is evident that even now, two years later, the message has still not been taken on board.

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