Updated | Joe Cassar claims ignorance of €8,000 houseworks bill Gaffarena paid

Opposition leader accepts Joe Cassar's resignation from shadow cabinet as he stays on as member of the PN parliamentary group • Former PN minister claims he has been manipulated by an 'unscrupulous man'

Joe Cassar claims that he is unaware of an €8,000 bill that Joe Gaffarena paid for him, or that it was a breach of ethics for him not to declare it
Joe Cassar claims that he is unaware of an €8,000 bill that Joe Gaffarena paid for him, or that it was a breach of ethics for him not to declare it

Nationalist MP Joe Cassar has announced he will no longer occupy the role of Opposition spokesperson for culture, after MaltaToday broke news on Sunday that as minister he had not declared over €8,000 in house works paid for by donor Joe Gaffarena in 2011.

But Cassar is insisting that he did nothing which breached the law but that he had “allowed an unscrupulous person [to] take advantage” of him.

“The fact that this happened some three years ago is no excuse and I apologise unreservedly to the electorate for my error of judgment.”

MORE: Simon Busuttil says “it is clear that Joe Cassar cannot remain as a member of the shadow government”

It is now apparent that Joe Gaffarena, a person of confidence with the former health minister, was responsible for paying not just the house works carried out by construction company Devlands, but also for a CCTV system and a Peugeot 307 registered in Cassar’s wife’s name.

But the undeclared gifts presume that a breach of ethics took place, a fact that Cassar contests: he said in his statement on Sunday afternoon that he had no gifts to declare and that he had not breached the Ministerial Code of Ethics which applied to him prior to March 2013.

He also “categorically” refuted to have ever known or consented for any payments to be made for him by Gaffarena for works carried out at his Dingli home. “In this regard, I am taking legal advice to identify the avenues available to me.”

Cassar was not a frontbencher on Opposition leader Simon's Busuttil shadow government, although as MP he will no longer occupy a spokesperson's role. A former Nationalist MP, Giovanna Debono, had to resign from the PN parliamentary group when her husband was charged with misappropriation of public funds inside the Gozo ministry she led: she is now an independent MP.

And he reiterated claims he made in the House of Representatives on Thursday – during which he did not declare the alleged gifts in a speech dealing with his relationship with Joe Gaffarena – that Gaffarena’s gifts created no obligation on him.

Article 8.4 of the Code of Ethics states that no minister can accept “gifts, donations, hospitality or services from anybody, which can place him under obligation to that person, and this applies to the minister’s family members. In case of doubt they should consult the Prime Minister.”

Cassar claims no obligation was created on his part, but Joe Gaffarena has recently alleged that the MP had set up a meeting with then deputy leader Simon Busuttil in 2012, ostensibly to discuss the future of his petrol pump station which was closed down by MEPA over an abusive extension.

Cassar today said that he hoped his resignation “will allow the focus to return on the real corruption in this country and on those who are truly abusing of their position.”

“The way this person is, in collusion with the Labour Party, manipulating the events of three years ago – in an attempt to cover up his and the Labour Party's unacceptable scandals – has become a distraction as the Nationalist Party fights to raise the standards of political behaviour in this country.”

“It is only because of this person’s manipulation of events that took place three years ago that today, they are being made to look life gifts. Still less was there any obligation created on me. So much so that Joe Gaffarena never got what he wanted from a PN administration – the sanctioning of his illegally-built petrol station,” Cassar said.

“This, he got only after he crossed over to the Labour Party. Nor did his son get a multi-million compensation for half-ownership of a house in Valletta. For these actions, it is only Joseph Muscat and Michael Falzon who have to answer,” he continued.

PN calls on Muscat to come clean on Gaffarena relationship • Labour blasts Busuttil’s “ridiculous and laughable” reaction

In a statement moments after Joe Cassar’s resignation, the Nationalist Party said that Simon Busuttil is a man of his word and that prime minister Joseph Muscat should follow suit and come clean on his relationship with the Gaffarena family.

The PN also sought to turn the tables on the government, and questioned whether Muscat had met Gaffarena before the election and if he had received anything in exchange for the Old Mint Street expropriation deal.

“Gaffarena never got what he wanted from the PN, but under the Labour Party, Gaffarena received anything he wanted, including the sanctioning of his illegally-built petrol station, as well as a €3.5 million compensation for a property in Valletta.”

“Did Joseph Muscat meet Gaffarena before the election? Is it true that everything had already been agreed upon, and what did the prime minister receive in exchange for the millions paid to Gaffarena?” the PN asked.

The Nationalist Party also questioned whether Muscat would take action parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon over the latter’s involvement in the Gaffarena scandal. Similarly, the PN questioned whether the prime minister will take action against parliamentary secretary Ian Borg and minister Helena Dalli following their respective controversies.

Taking exception at the “laughable, ridiculous and weak” reaction of Simon Busuttil, the Labour Party said Simon Busuttil committed an error of judgment after he retained Joe Cassar as part of the PN parliamentary group.  

The PL said Busuttil’s first error of judgment was when he vouched for Joe Cassar’s integrity and the second was that he did not dismiss the former minister from the party’s parliamentary group.

“Busuttil’s biggest error of judgment is that he surrounded himself with the same people who clawed as much as they could under previous administrations. Simon Busuttil did not change anything,” the Labour Party said.