Update 4 | Malta fishing director suspended over tuna bribery allegations, issues denial

Documents from Spain’s Guardia Civil leaked to the Spanish media show how Fisheries Director Andreina Fenech Farrugia asked Spanish tuna rancher José Fuentes García for payment • Spanish investigators intercepted phone calls • Malta to collaborate fully

Fisheries department director Andreina Fenech Farrugia
Fisheries department director Andreina Fenech Farrugia

Updated at 4.20pm with Fenech Farrugia's denial of the allegations

Malta's head of fisheries has been suspended after a Spanish investigation of illegally caught bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean implicated her in wrongdoing.

Excerpt from a transcript of a phone conversation intercepted by Spanish investigators
Excerpt from a transcript of a phone conversation intercepted by Spanish investigators

Phone intercepts by the Spanish investigative authorities show how Andreina Fenech Farrugia asked a Spanish tuna operator for payment.

Transcripts of the conservations between Fenech Farrugia and the king of Spanish blue fin tuna operators, José Fuentes García, were leaked to the Spanish media house El Confidencial.

Environment Minister Jose Herrera told MaltaToday on Tuesday morning that he has suspended Fenech Farrugia. "I will be appointing an acting head shortly," Herrera said, without elaborating.

At 4:20pm, Fenech Farrugia issued a denial of the allegations. "I would like to categorically deny any wrongdoing on my part and I strongly rebut the allegations in my regard. Moreover, I would like to declare that I have always observed and employed the highest standards of diligence and professionalism in my work and this is documented at the relevant competent authorities and I always took the necessary legal steps against all operators, at all times, when any illegalities were detected."

An excerpt from the phone intercepts recorded by Spanish investigators
An excerpt from the phone intercepts recorded by Spanish investigators

Tapped conversations

In one conversation intercepted by the Spanish investigative authorities on 20 June last year, Fenech Farrugia told Fuentes: "I'm in Bulgaria just for you, you have to pay me, because there's a meeting and I'm with the [director] general of Brussels."

On that date Fenech Farrugia was representing Malta in meetings of the fishing sector that were taking place in Sofia. Bulgaria held the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2018.

Other intercepts show that the Maltese high official would have collaborated for years to enable the Fuentes Group introduce more bluefin tuna onto the market.

Bluefin tuna is highly regulated with quotas but the Spanish investigation has shown how many more tonnes of fish were declared and authorized in farms operating from Malta. The estimated value of this illegal trade is €25 million.

Fuentes, has a subsidiary operation in Malta by the name of Mare Blue Fishing.

The Spanish investigators have alleged that Fenech Farrugia used her influence to regularize the catches so that they could be exported to lucrative markets in Japan, Spain and the US. Fenech Farrugia is being accused of taking bribes.

The fishing director did not respond to questions from the Spanish media house.

READ ALSO: Suspend fisheries director, Malta acquaculture lobby says over bribery allegations

Malta will collaborate in investigations

In a subsequent development, Fisheries Parliamentary Secretary Clint Camilleri has pledged Malta's full collaboration in the investigations.

"In the best interest of the Maltese fishing and acquaculture sector the government will be collaborating fully with relevant authorities in any type of investigation that is necessary to establish all the facts," Camilleri said.

READ ALSO: Malta police investigation and magisterial inquiry into Spanish tuna company were underway

Nationalist MP questions swift suspension

Speaking during a press conference later on Tuesday, the PN's environment spokesperson Jason Azzopardi questioned why the government had suspended Fenech Farrugia immediately given that it had dragged its feet over other cases.

"I'm not saying that she shouldn't have been suspended. It's good that she was. But this is an allegation in a foreign report on a public official while facts on government officials have still not resulted in resignations," Azzopardi said, referring to Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff Keith Schembri.

Azzopardi also noted that Fenech Farrugia had been removed from her post back in 2010 before being reinstated in 2013. "What kind of agreement did she have with Labour for this to happen?" Azzopardi asked.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella was present for the fisheries meeting in Sofia on the day that Fenech Farrugia communicated with Fuentes. Vella was actually in Brussels on the day, at a meeting of the college of commissioners.