Standards probe into PM’s conversation with tax chief over Grech draws blank

Standards Commissioner unable to obtain evidence from police as to alleged mobile phone conversation between PM and tax chief on Bernard Grech’s tax filings

Robert Abela chose not to comment on the specific allegations and on the correctness or not of what he told journalists he did
Robert Abela chose not to comment on the specific allegations and on the correctness or not of what he told journalists he did

The Standards Commissioner could find no ethical breach over an alleged conversation between the prime minister and the Commissioner for Tax, over the tax filings of Opposition leader Bernard Grech, due to a procedural inability to obtain the evidence for such a conversation.

The complaint by independent politician Arnold Cassola was sparked by a report in The Times that tax boss Marvin Gaerty’s mobile phone – seized by the police in the course of an investigation – is believed to contain “a treasure trove of information” including an exchange with the prime minister himself this year.

According to the Times the phone was understood to contain a conversation in which Abela refers to confidential information about Grech’s taxes.

Abela later publicly claimed that it was a PN source who passed on to him tax information on Grech, which he personally forwarded to the Tax Commissioner.

Standards Commissioner report

Hyzler said the allegation merited an investigation, because if confirmed it would amount to a serious abuse of power that raises questions about the independence of the Maltese institutions. “Allegations of this type reflect the balance of power between that of the executive, especially the extensive powers of the Prime Minister, and the serenity of citizens whose personal data is processed by State institutions.”

Hyzler requested that Commissioner of Police Angelo Gafà verifies the said allegation from the evidence of the mobile phone conversations. However, on 3 November 2021, Gafà said that at law such evidence could not be released without a special dispensation from the Courts or the Attorney General.

Times of Malta editor Herman Grech informed Hyzler on 24 January 2022 that the newspaper could not provide any information beyond what was already published.

Tax Commissioner Marvin Gaerty, appearing before the Standards Commissioner on 4 August 2022 accompanied by his lawyer, availed himself of the right to not to incriminate himself by not testifying.

On his part, Prime Minister Robert Abela told Hyzler that Cassola himself had failed to provide any evidence for his own complaint. Yet Hyzler said the onus was on himself as an investigator, not on Cassola as the complainant, to procure evidence substantiating any ethical breach or not.

Hyzler conceded that the laws prohibiting the release of evidence both from police and the Tax Commissioner prevented him from furthering his investigation. “I can only conclude that some form of communication between Abela and Gaerty took place, because the PM never denied this when asked by journalists about it on 28 December 2020,” Hyzler said.

But Hyzler added that even such a communication would not be considered a breach of ethics. “Still, no comfort stems from this... the PM chose not to comment on the specific allegations and on the correctness or not of what he told journalists he did.”

In a reaction, Cassola said Abela had not answered any of Hyzler’s questions. “The Standards Commissioner refuted the Prime Minister’s assertion and stated that the law is clear: ‘Any person can ask for an investigation on allegations of breaches to ethichical or statutory rules and does not need to have a personal interest’,” Cassola said.

“In view of the Prime Minister’s reluctance to provide the commissioner with satisfactory responses, the Commissioner for Standards could not come to a clear conclusion whether there was or there was not an ethical breach,” Cassola said.

Originally, Cassola had told Hyzler that if it was true that Abela had abused of his powers by requesting information on Grech’s tax matters, this was a resignation matter. “Such behaviour is anathema in the democratic world,” Cassola had said. “If this were true, there is simply no room for any discussion: Robert Abela must resign or be kicked out. Now. This country simply can’t take any more of this indecent political behaviour… if true.”