PN accuse electoral commission of acting as both investigator and judge in party financing cases

The Nationalist party, through lawyer Jason Azzopardi, is arguing that the commission is in breach of the constitution, as it acts as both prosecutor and judge

The lawyer representing the PN in a Constitutional case filed by the Nationalist Party against the electoral commission, has accused the commission of acting unconstitutionally, as both investigator and judge, when investigating breaches of the party financing law.

Electoral Commission representative Ray Zammit took the witness stand earlier today, telling judge Joseph Zammit MacKeon how he had accepted advice from the commission’s lawyer, Professor Ian Refalo.

Zammit added that it was not good practice for the electoral commission to both investigate and decide on matters.

The case was filed by the Labour administration, which introduced a law regulating the way political parties are funded, so as to reduce the potential for abuse.

The electoral commission, under the party financing law, is empowered to investigate alleged breaches of the party financing law. Should any wrongdoing be found, the commission may impose a fine of up to €50,000 on the party at fault.

The PN, through lawyer Jason Azzopardi, is arguing that this is in breach of the Constitution and the fundamental right to a fair hearing, due to the fact that the commission was acting as both prosecutor and judge.

Zammit said that he had agreed with the party financing law, but insisted that it was a mistake for the law to place the onus on the commission to declare when breaches have taken place.

This is because the law regulating general elections does not provide for judicial powers to the commission.

Zammit continued to explain how he expressed his reservations to lawyer Franco Debono, who was tasked with overseeing that the party financing law is properly implemented by the electoral commission.

The witness said that since the introduction of the party financing law, the electoral commission had dealt with two complaints.

The first one from Alternattiva Demokratika (AD), against the use of the Girgenti palace by the Labour Party (PL) parliamentary group.

The second complaint was filed by the PL against the PN for allegedly breaching party financing laws in accepting money from Silvio Debono’s DB Group.

It was alleged that in an effort to skirt party financing rules, a subsidiary company of DB Group, which supplies catering services to airlines, had paid €70,000 in donations to the PN through its media company, under the guise of advertising.

The PN deny the allegations.

DB Group asked the PN to refund the donations after former PN leader Simon Busuttil, who at the time, was leader of the Opposition, had shone a spotlight on the contract between DB Group and the government over the transfer of former Institute of Tourism Studies land at St George’s Bay.

In his testimony, Ray Zammit said that because of the advice received about being prosecutor and judge, the electoral commission felt the need to set up a sub committee that would compile the evidence.

The sub-committee was made up of a former judge, Geoffrey Valenzia and an auditor.

The Electoral Commission was to make the final decision.

The PL and PN sides of the electoral commission could not agree on the auditor, however the auditor was eventually appointed after a vote took place within the commission.

During April of this year, Ray Zammit, Victor Scerri, Joseph Zammit Maempel and Mario Callus, in their capacity as electoral commission representatives, wrote to the President where they expressed their concerns that they were in breach of the Constitution.

Scerri and Zammit Maempel also testified this morning and corroborated Zammit’s account.

The Dean of the Faculty of Laws at the University of Malta, Prof. Kevin Aquilina and Constitutional lawyer Tonio Borg both testified to confirm that they expressed their opinions on the matter via publications on newspapers, where they commented that the law was unconstitutional.

Lawyer Jason Azzopardi is representing the PN while Professor Ian Refalo is representing the Electoral Commission.