Court dismisses Simon Busuttil’s libel suit over disproven allegations of official driver’s impropriety

Former PN leader loses libel suit as 2015 PL press release deemed to have been based on facts, but - in a separate case - Busuttil is awarded €2,000 in damages in case against It-Torca editor

Former PN leader Simon Busuttil has lost a libel suit against Joseph Muscat and the Labour Party
Former PN leader Simon Busuttil has lost a libel suit against Joseph Muscat and the Labour Party

Former PN leader Simon Busuttil has lost a libel suit he had filed against Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and the Labour Party over a 2015 Labour Party press release that called on him to take full political responsibility for allegations of impropriety on the part of his driver’s usage of his €250 monthly fuel allowance.

The Speaker of the house had noted an anomaly in the vehicle's consumption and had reported the matter to the police. A magisterial inquiry was opened and Busuttil had written to the Speaker asking him to suspend the driver with immediate effect, pending the investigation.

On the same day, 7 December 2015, the PL had released a press statement accusing Busuttil of being responsible for a serious error of judgment in personally appointing the driver and claiming that the opposition leader had been “caught in a serious case of fraud involving public funds,” just one day after Busuttil had made a speech about standards in public life.

Busuttil filed for libel, which the Prime Minister and Abela rebutted by claiming that they were not the authors or editors of the statement, and that the comments were political comments about a public person.

The magisterial inquiry was concluded in April 2016 and no wrongdoing was found.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale observed that at the time the press release had been issued, the statements it contained had been “substantially correct” , in that there had indeed been accusations by the Speaker of the House about alleged misuse of the fuel allowance by his driver.

The PL had taken the opportunity to point out that the plaintiff had, just the day before, published a document on good governance and used this as a launchpad to discredit him politically.

The court also observed that the plaintiff had made the most of every opportunity he had to publicly rebut the allegations made by the PL.

Magistrate Depasquale held that there was nothing defamatory in the content of the press release as it had been based on facts which, at the time, had been substantially correct and which consisted of “deserved, if severe” political comments, which were justified at law.

Win some, lose some ... Busuttil wins libel case against It-Torca editor

A court has awarded former PN leader Simon Busuttil compensation for an article which falsely alleged that he had not declared his involvement in a trust in his annual declaration of assets to Parliament.

Busuttil had sued former acting editor of it-Torca, Joseph Caruana for libel after the GWU-owned paper ran a story on 28 February 2016 titled: “Unfounded accusations…the PN leader does not declare his involvement in one of two trust companies that he was involved in”.

Busuttil had denied any involvement with the company and had requested that a right of reply be published, eventually filing libel proceedings.

In a judgment handed down today, magistrate Francesco Depasquale observed that it-Torca published two articles on the same date, one starting on the front page, which alleged that Busuttil had failed to declare his involvement in The Alphabet Trustee (Nominee) Ltd, as part of his declaration to the House of Parliament.

But the court noted that, from the documents he had exhibited in court, there was no involvement in the company for Busuttil to declare. The Alphabet Trustee (Nominee) Ltd’s sole shareholder was another company, Gansam Holdings Ltd. Busuttil had a shareholding in Gansam together with two other people, said the court.

Busuttil was obliged to declare all interests he had in commercial companies, and his declaration of assets had included Gansam Holdings. Busuttil had also exhibited a declaration showing that he had resigned from all directorial positions in May 2013, upon his appointment as Leader of the Opposition.

The court found for Busuttil, ordering that he be paid €2,000 in damages.