Opposition MP lashes out at ‘inquisitive’ banks, financial intelligence unit

Opposition MP Tony Abela mocks anti-money laundering officials as 'people who sit behind desks all day', staunchly defends 'general goodwill' of politicians from both sides of the House

Opposition Tony Abela lashed out at local banks and the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit – the government agency tasked with combatting money laundering – for being “too inquisitive with its clients”.

“Certain banks these days not only ask depositors where the money they are depositing originated from but why they are depositing the money,” he said towards the end of a parliamentary speech on this year’s Budget. “No secretary or bank manager should have the right to ask you why you want to deposit your own money – that’s simply going from one extreme to another.”

He recounted how a bank had recently asked a youth such questions about a mere €1000 he wanted to deposit.

His speech then took a turn for the personal, questioning why “certain banks” refuse to accept cash that he wants to deposit to pay his stamp duty.

“They refuse to accept the money I ultimately owe to government in cash, but if I don’t pay it within three weeks, then I’ll end up receiving a fine myself.”

Abela, a former parliamentary secretary, urged finance minister Edward Scicluna to revamp the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit, the government’s anti-money laundering agency.

Mocking FIAU officials as “people who sit behind desks all day and never descend into the streets”, he questioned why they feel the need to investigate every nook and cranny.

“Every time a notary signs a contract, the FIAU steps in to inquire where the money is going to and why,” he said. “The FIAU is now investigating every accountant and lawyer, whereas the parallel government entity in the UK only investigates cases where they suspect there’s a crime.”

He claimed that “people have faith” in the police’s Economic Crimes Unit. Police commissioner Michael Cassar recently admitted that the unit is severely under-staffed, manned by a mere five police officers, and indeed claimed that the National Audit Office was better equipped to investigate the Gaffarena expropriation scandal.

The Economic Crimes Unit has also recently come under fire by the Opposition for having employed Daniel and Roderick Zammit, the sons of former acting police commissioner Ray Zammit.

“The time has come for the minister [Scicluna] to give the FIAU a serious talking to and perhaps even revamp the department, so that it resembles more those in the UK and France. People sitting behind desks shouldn’t be allowed to abuse people.

Earlier in his speech, Abela launched a staunch defence of his political colleagues from both sides of the House, insisting that the “element of distrust” in them from the public is wrongly placed.

“Ever since Malta became a republic, its politicians have always sought the best for the country, and it’s a true shame to see certain quarters of the public portray them as though they have some sort of illness,” he said.

In an attempt at a joke, the former parliamentary secretary said that he “doesn’t think anybody in he House has Ebola”.

“It’s simply not right for politicians to be portrayed in a bad light, and the element of distrust in them is wrongly placed. Some of the current crop of politicians do make mistakes or carry out deals hastily or promise certain things to certain people before elections. However, the vast majority have Malta’s best interests at hear, and they dedicate their lives to help people of their district and the country in general.”

In his speech, Abela flitted from topic to topic – from the need for university students to take internships in sectors non-related to their field of study “to get them ready for the real world”, to problems with the tallinja bus card. He called for the ‘American Institute of Malta’ to be constructed on the site of the former Jerma Palace Hotel, urged government to reduce fuel prices, and expressed his hope that the cameras installed at the Coast Road won’t be used “to issue tickets to drivers”.

“I hope they have been installed for security purposes and not to issue tickets to drivers,” he said, arguing that the role of traffic wardens should be to speak to and advise people and not issue tickets.