Standards commissioner found ethics breach with Fenech’s Petrus gift to Muscat

Petrus gift from Yorgen Fenech to Joseph Muscat on his birthday in 2019 was breach of ethics, Commissioner for Standards find

Updated at 4pm with Joseph Muscat's reaction

Joseph Muscat breached the code of ethics when he accepted three expensive bottles of wine from murder suspect Yorgen Fenech, the Standards Commissioner ruled.

George Hyzler found that Muscat breached five clauses of the code of ethics, insisting that the former prime minister “should have known better” after having been critical in the past of ethical breaches by a minister in the previous administration.

Hyzler mentioned the fact that when still Opposition leader, Muscat had “correctly” flagged the unethical behaviour of former finance minister Tonio Fenech when he travelled on a private jet with two businessmen to go and watch a football match.

Tonio Fenech had travelled with Joe Gasan and George Fenech, Yorgen’s father, on a private jet that belongs to the Tumas Group. At the time, Tonio Fenech was responsible for regulating betting shops, a sector in which the Tumas Group had an interest.

Hyzler praised Muscat’s stance back then but chided him for ignoring his own criticism: “After that experience, the Prime Minister should have known better than to invite Yorgen Fenech for a private and restricted party and accepted gifts from him.”

The conclusions are found in a report finalised this week by Hyzler and released this afternoon by a parliamentary committee tasked with deciding whether the former prime minister should be censored for his actions.

All MPs on the committee, including government ministers Edward Zammit Lewis and Byron Camilleri, agreed to publish the full report. The committee is chaired by Speaker Anġlu Farrugia.

Commissioner based himself on perception, not facts - Joseph Muscat

In a reaction to the ruling, Joseph Muscat lamented that Standards Commissioner had based himself on perception, not facts.

The former prime minister said in a Facebook post that he felt that not enough importance was given to the “exceptional circumstances” surrounding the case. “…despite the documented threats I received, I performed by duties without fear or favour, as the results show. This is not perception, but fact.”

“In a delicate and unique situation such as this, you must take decisions. It’s easy to after the fact maintain that things could have been done differently. These are decisions taken in the moment, based on knowledge and consultation,” he said, “Whatever the case, I took decisions and shouldered responsibility for them. And, despite that these led to results, contrary to what happened under previous prime ministers, I assumed responsibility and resigned, as the report acknowledges."

Muscat went on to insist that he was the only prime minister who had left the gifts he received to the State, including the Petrus wines. “But it appears that this fact was not deemed relevant,” he said.

He said that, amongst the gifts he had left to the State were a limited edition watch on the occasion of Malta’s ten-year anniversary of EU membership. The Bulgari watch had led to controversy when it was revealed in December last year that the expensive timepiece had been gifted to him by Yorgen Fenech in 2014.

Muscat said that other politicians had been given similar watches when Malta joined the EU. “Only my watch is in the State’s possession. Who knows in which showcases of which homes the others are. It is actually clear who owns them, but it seems that everybody’s forgotten suddenly.”

He added that, at the end of the day, he had continued to “act in the best interest of the country, and shouldered his burdens and also those which weren’t [mine]. “This is a fact.”

Hyzler to testify about report before parliamentary committee

Another parliamentary committee sitting will now take place during which Hyzler will be asked to testify about the report. Muscat will also be given the opportunity to testify before the committee decides on a course of action.

The report also includes the former prime minister’s defence that he acted as he did on the advice of the Security Service.

The birthday party was held in February 2019 at the Girgenti Palace, the prime minister’s official residence.

Fenech was one of a restricted number of invitees and on the occasion gifted Muscat three bottles of Petrus wines that collectively would cost around €5,800. The news was first reported by The Times.

At the time, Fenech was a suspect in the Caruana Galizia case since at least May 2018, and Muscat would have known since he had signed the warrant for the Secret Service to tap his phone. Fenech was arrested in November 2019.

Muscat refuted the commissioner’s assertion that the gifts constituted a conflict of interest, insisting that subsequent actions he took as prime minister led to Fenech’s arrest.

Muscat said the wine bottles were left to the State and are at the Girgenti Palace.

During the brief committee meeting, Zammit Lewis said the ethics breach was classified as not being a “grave” breach, and that no remedy was necessitated since the gift had not been taken by Muscat but kept with the State. Opposition MPs Karol Aquilina and Carm Mifsud Bonnici disagreed.

The ethics complaint was filed by the independent candidate Arnold Cassola after it emerged that the alleged mastermind behind the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, had gifted the wine bottles to Muscat on his birthday back in 2019.

Cassola said it was no joke that the country faced a scenario in which a sitting PM socialised with and was in SMS communication with Yorgen Fenech, the owner of the Dubai offshore company 17 Black, identified as a target client of secret Panama companies opened by Muscat’s former chief of staff Keith Schembri and a childhood friend of Schembri.

The February party at Girgenti Palace made headlines after a video was leaked on WhatsApp showing Muscat and his wife Michelle leading guests in chanting an old Labour Party anthem.

Read the full report here: