Ethics czar clears Bonett of wrongdoing on holiday trip but wants guidelines on use of official cars

Standards Commissioner says Chris Bonett did not breach rules when he used the official car to holiday abroad but insists in absence of official guidelines Cabinet members should adopt ethically considerate position

EU Funds Parliamentary Secretary Chris Bonett
EU Funds Parliamentary Secretary Chris Bonett

Standards Commissioner Joseph Azzopardi has called for the “prudent” use of official cars by Cabinet members but dismissed claims of abuse against Parliamentary Secretary Chris Bonett.

In a decision communicated today, Azzopardi said the EU Funds Parliamentary Secretary did not breach rules when he used his official car to holiday in Sicily and thus ended the investigation into the matter.

However, the Standards Commissioner said ministers, parliamentary secretaries and public officials had to be conscious of public perception and in the absence of formal guidelines adopt an ethically considerate position.

Azzopardi said he is aware that when high-ranking government officials are assigned a car, some use it also to travel overseas.

“This does not mean it is a good practice and prudence in the use of the car should always be shown. In case of doubt, one must choose the least controversial road and the one that is ethically commendable. However, if any limitations should be imposed, these should be addressed with specific regulations and not left at the discretion of the individual,” Azzopardi said.

He called for guidelines to be drawn up on the use of official vehicles by high-ranking public officials and communicated his decision to the permanent secretary in the Finance Ministry.

Bonett holidayed abroad with ministerial car

The complaint against Bonett was filed by independent candidate Arnold Cassola in December 2022 following a report that appeared in The Shift. Cassola called the incident a “grave breach of ethics and a serious act of ministerial impunity”.

Bonett had travelled to Sicily with his family using the official car assigned to him when he was appointed parliamentary secretary following the March 2022 general election.

The car lease contract for the vehicle had been concluded in 2020 by the Home Affairs Ministry at the time before Bonett was elected to parliament and subsequently appointed parliamentary secretary.

Azzopardi found that the lease contract did not impose any limitations on the use of the car and Bonett had also paid the relevant insurance cover for overseas use out of private funds.

The Finance Ministry also confirmed that no official guidelines or rules exist on how ministerial vehicles can be used.

To this effect, Azzopardi concluded Bonett breached no regulations when he used the car for the family holiday trip in Sicily but questioned the lack of formal guidelines.

The Standards Commissioner called for “caution and prudence”, insisting his office was obliged to look beyond what is permissible at law since ethical considerations went much further than simply adhering to the rules.

Azzopardi proposed the introduction of guidelines for ministers and parliamentary secretaries and all government officials, including those employed by parastatal entities, on the use of official cars.

He said these rules should be published so that people can “put their minds at rest”.

In a Facebook post, Bonett welcomed the decision, calling it a confirmation that "the campaign against him on the use of the ministerial car was based on deceit".

He called out what he described as "the practice" to throw about "spurious allegations", claiming he was a victim of this. "Who alleges wrongdoing should be aware of what they are saying and be able to prove it," Bonett said.

However, the parliamentary secretary did not comment on the Standards Commissioner's remarks as regards the prudent and ethically correct use of official cars in the absence of guidelines.

Reacting to the Standards Commissioner's findings on his complaint, Cassola emphasised the fact that Azzopardi declared it is not good practice for ministers to use their ministerial cars abroad. "Indeed, they should exercise prudence in the use of their ministerial car," Cassola said, adding clear guidelines should be drafted for use of cars by ministers and government officials.