Too many coincidences

Whatever the surname, people are justified in questioning whether it was a ‘lucky coincidence’ that led to the acquisition of a property so close to it being expropriated.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

It is often said that nothing happens by coincidence. This may well be an exaggeration… but when ‘coincidences’ are as plentiful as in the Gaffarena expropriation case, suspicion becomes inevitable.

Reacting to accusations of ‘political involvement’ in the expropriation deal, parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon sought to minimise the issue by arguing that the case was only given attention because of the surname it involves: the name Gaffarena being no stranger to political controversy in this country.

A cursory glance at the facts is however enough to dispel this fanciful argument. Even if the surname were different, the number of ‘coincidences’ in an expropriation deal costing the taxpayer €1.65 million would certainly be enough to warrant investigation.

Gaffarena originally took ownership of 25% of a property in Old Mint Street, Valletta, in 2007 for €23,294, and then bought another 25% for €139,762 in February 2015. He was compensated €822,500 in cash and lands in January 2015 for the government’s expropriation of his 25%; and then another €822,500 in cash and lands in April 2015 for the other 25% – two months after its purchase.

Whatever the surname, people are justified in questioning whether it was a ‘lucky coincidence’ that led to the acquisition of a property so close to it being expropriated. To this one can add the fact that many of the parcels of land received as part of the compensation just happen to lie adjacent to other properties already owned by Gaffarena, and which he intends to develop.

A government source told this newspaper that only inside information from a highly-placed official inside the Government Property Division could have allowed the exact identification of lands that Marco Gaffarena needed for his own personal and business interests.

Moreover, Gaffarena was also seen at the Lands Department offices in the company of a member of Falzon’s parliamentary secretariat, at a point before the compensatory land was selected. This on its own would be enough to raise eyebrows, regardless of the identity of the beneficiary of such a generous compensation package.

Given all this, it is surprising that the government would have proved so reluctant to give the go-ahead to any investigation at all. Initial reactions by planning secretary Falzon were to dismiss calls for scrutiny. It was only a week later, as pressure mounted over the case, that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat finally asked the Internal Auditor Investigation Department to investigate… apparently overruling Falzon in the process.

This is not the level of commitment one expects to transparency and accountability, from a government which had built its election campaign almost entirely on those two principles. But now that the IAID has been asked to investigate – however belatedly – questions must also be asked about the approach to the inquiry. 

One question concerns why the police have not (apparently) taken any interest in the case so far. Insider trading is a crime according to Maltese law. So far there is no direct evidence that this crime was committed; but given the aforementioned coincidences – and above all, claims that insider information was almost certainly made available in this case – the police are in duty-bound to at least investigate such a glaring potential for criminal activity.

Such an investigation can and should be undertaken by the police on its own initiative, and in conjunction with any other independent inquiry.

On another level, one must also question the criticism by the Opposition of Muscat’s decision to involve the IAID. It is true that the Opposition requested the National Audit Office to investigate; but Muscat is within his rights to choose the IAID instead, which is in any case better equipped to deal with such cases than the Auditor General’s office. 

The IAID is in fact the designated interlocutor of OLAF in Malta, and also the country’s Anti-Fraud Co-ordinating Service (AFCOS). This implies that it can conduct joint investigations with OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, and also that it wields executive powers which go beyond the remit of the NAO.

Moreover the Opposition’s hostile reaction can only serve to undermine the legitimacy of this important tool in the country’s anti-fraud arsenal. One Nationalist MP has even gone as far as to suggest that by appointing the IAID – which is answerable to OPM and Cabinet – Muscat is effectively ‘investigating himself’.

This is to say the least misleading. For one thing it suggests personal involvement by the Prime Minister in the expropriation deal  – for which there is no evidence, and which therefore smacks of a political ploy attempting to indict the entire administration over a decision that could just as easily have been taken at much lower levels. 

Moreover, the present staff of the IAID have remained unchanged since it was appointed under a Nationalist administration. Yet its expertise or competence was never questioned before the change in government, suggesting that the PN only has faith in such institutions when it is in government itself.

It would be preferable to allow the IAID the space it needs to conduct its investigation, and for the police to also get involved. Otherwise, there is a danger that party politics will distort the entire issue, as has so often been the case in the past.

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