Beware of ‘friends’ bearing gifts: regulating trading in influence

Muscat himself has now underscored the danger, by claiming to being ‘blackmailed’. That is the whole point of the matter: it was his own decision to accept the watch that placed him in a position where both he and his government could be blackmailed

If a recent news report is true, and it certainly has not been denied, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat will have a lot to answer for in his last two weeks in office.

The report claims that Muscat was gifted a Bvlgari watch, said to be valued at €20,000, by Yorgen Fenech: the Tumas magnate facing charges of having masterminded the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017.

Irrespective of any connection to the murder case itself, the scenario is too uncomfortably reminiscent of the notorious ‘arlogg tal-lira’ incident before the 2013 election: when former finance minister Tonio Fenech had accepted the gift of a traditional Maltese clock from oil trader George Farrugia.

Ironically, at the time Joseph Muscat had gleaned maximum political mileage out of Fenech’s uncomfortable situation, ahead of an election that propelled Muscat into power specifically on the promise of ‘cleaning up Maltese politics’.

On his part, Muscat has so far not denied having accepted the gift: arguing instead that his acceptance constitutes no breach of the ministerial code of ethics. This very issue is now the subject of an investigation by the Commissioner of Standards in Public Life; separately, the NGO Repubblika has filed a criminal report with the police over suspected bribery.

Either way, the prime minister now owes the country an explanation for this state of affairs. And the matter cannot be resolved by means of just any inquiry.

The problem with our code of ethics is that it delegates the responsibility of clearing ministers who accept gifts to the Prime Minister himself, as the ultimate reporting authority. This is not suitable, especially when it is precisely the Prime Minister who can be compromised by such gifts.

This is all territory we went over well before 2013: ever since the notorious incident concerning Tonio Fenech and that traditional Maltese clock, the dangers of MPs cultivating close rapports with business interests have become all the more apparent.

Simply put, the power wielded by parliament makes its members vulnerable to attempts at ‘buying’ their patronage. In 2015, former health minister Joe Cassar had also admitted to accepting a car from Joe Gaffarena – the businessman whose son was at the heart of an inquiry over the expropriation of the BICC offices on Old Mint Street in Valletta – against an anonymous €1,000 donation to the Nationalist Party.

This latest case is however far more serious for Joseph Muscat; and not just because of the discrepancy in value of the items involved. This is the case of a Prime Minister who accepted a gift from someone with whom his chief of staff already had a secret business relationship through the Panama network, and was directly interested in legislation being passed in the House or in public procurement: i.e., the Electrogas power station.

That all this happened only within a year or so of Labour having made political capital out of Tonio Fenech’s gift, at the time of the oil scandal, only adds to the absurdist flavour of proceedings.

Regardless of the outcome of any ongoing inquiry, then, what is needed are clear, unequivocal rules to ensure that Malta’s House of Representatives does not degenerate into a marketplace for politicians and businessmen to trade in influence.

To this end, one may consider models employed abroad. The American system, for instance, employs its Department of State to regulate the gifting and receiving of gifts by members of executive, throughs its Office of Chief of Protocol.

It is this office which recommends which gifts are given to foreign dignitaries, but members of the executive also have to report gifts they accept to this office; the gifts are donated to the State if worth more than some $260, and the State publishes an annual list of gifts, the identities of the donor and the beneficiary, how much the gift is valued at, and why the gift was accepted – usually since it would often be embarrassing to refuse a gift.

Compared with other levels of regulatory safeguards in other laws, our ministerial code of ethics falls far short of its stated aim. Nonetheless, even if in a rudimentary form, it still specifically prohibits MPs from placing themselves in positions where they may be indebted to third parties.

This applies to Muscat – more so than other MPs, by virtue of being prime minister – regardless of whether the Fenechs also gifted the same timepiece (of which the late George Fenech had apparently acquired 25) to other politicians before 2014.

Ironically, Muscat himself has now underscored the danger, by claiming to being ‘blackmailed’. That is the whole point of the matter: it was his own decision to accept the watch that placed him in a position where both he and his government could be blackmailed. After all, the sphere of influence of a minister is not just inside his own ministry, but also within his party and among other Cabinet colleagues.

From this perspective, the question many will now be asking is: who knows how many other people may have exerted the same kind of influence? Or how many still are today, undetected?

This can only be expected, when there are no proper rules of engagement regulating the issue of trading in influence.