A sting, or a journalist trap with hidden cameras and microphones, is a common method used in most countries when gullible and unsuspecting people are trapped into speaking out honestly about subjects that the journalists would be covering.

In Malta, we are not used to this sort of journalism and find it quite suspicious.

Most people in positions of authority or in positions where they represent a company or clients would  tend to be careful if faced with a camera and a microphone.

But if the journalist pretends to be a potential client, then the unsuspecting company executive, politician, lawyer, judge or doctor, thinking they are speaking in private, would tend to be more open.

Sometimes, they even go beyond what is being asked of them and boast to impress the potential client.

The recent example which made headlines was the sting carried out against the Austrian politician Heiny Christian Strache, member of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government, while on holiday abroad in a hotel room – the famous Ibiza affair.

When the video hit the airwaves, it brought about the fall of the Austrian government and new elections ensued.

In Malta, we have had a few of these stings and two stand out quite prominently. One concerned a judge who represented Malta on an international sports committee, stung by foreign journalists offering tickets allocated to Malta  for sale on the black market. Severe repercussions ensued, as well as shame being poured onto our country and our institutions.

The more recent sting was the one carried out about the sale of Maltese (and therefore EU) passports. Most people around the EU know that an EU passport is not the property of any one member state.

An EU passport is a natural right of all those who are nationals of the 28 member states of the EU.  It is in the interest of all EU member states that new citizens allowed into their club of nations should not be criminals, terrorists, escaping dictators and the like.

Yet, the word around Europe is that certain countries, among these Malta, have been bypassing their obligations towards their fellow Europeans to carry out proper control and care in adding new citizens to the EU.

Malta, through the money grabbing services of Henley  – a company known for having manipulated elections in small Caribbean countries in order  to continue selling passports – has only pretended to exert control.

Indeed, working with Cambridge Analytica, Henley has been involved in several election rigging exercises. Daphne Caruana Galizia had been on their tracks for quite some time. Other journalists in France, Italy, Germany and Holland have also been on their tracks and have examined sales of passports by countries that only seemingly apply the laws in force.

Malta was one of the countries suspected of having a corrupt system. As every Maltese knows, there is a curtain of secrecy that shrouds the numbers, names and sources of incomes of the many who fly in by night and are zoomed away in black-windowed limousines from the airport apron. Then, hey presto!

A few hours later, they leave Malta as new owners of an EU/Maltese passport.

What led to the sting, apart from the coverage of abuse of influence over the present government ministers by businessmen and legal practitioners, was the detailed discussion with a senior practising lawyer on how they advise their clients to bypass the rules of the system.

The word around Europe is that certain countries, among these Malta, have been bypassing their obligations towards their fellow Europeans

In this latest sting, the French journalists discovered, via innocent boasts of a lawyer, how to lobby senior politicians because of business or family ties. There is nothing wrong in that. There is nothing wrong with lobbying, if the ethical rules are followed.

Influencing through arguments and by presenting the facts to politicians and decision makers is all above board. It is only when money changes hands, either in the form of party contributions or, worse still, in the form of bribes, backhanders to Egrant and other Panama companies or to and from 17 Black, that the line into criminal activity is crossed.

What was very disturbing and should lead to the loss of a warrant to practise law was his confession to advising his clients and using his services to act illegally.

Two issues disturb me. The first was the way in which the innocent lobbying connection was used time and again by this lawyer to re-open previously denied applications by passport-seeking clients who would have failed the due diligence tests providing a serious risk of terrorism, criminality or human rights violations within the EU.

The second issue was that he claimed he could help his clients circumvent the 12-month residence obligation that had been imposed.

When one obtains residence in a country, this person, especially if he/she aims to become a Maltese citizen, has to pay taxes, is entitled to vote and to obey all our laws.

A lawyer who helps clients to avoid getting residence, or encourages them to only get an ‘pretend’ one by obfuscating the truth and hoodwinking the authorities, is helping his clients to avoid paying taxes in Malta on their world income (like all Maltese citizens residing in Malta are obliged to do) and is misinforming the police and the authorities in both Malta and the country of origin of the passport seeker.

In fact, many countries do not allow their citizens to hold dual citizenship, but Malta still grants secret passports to citizens from these countries, these people are being helped by Maltese lawyers to give false declarations to their own authorities.

In fact, we all know that there are many  apartments in cellars and garages, in which no decent person would dare live, which have been the pseudo residences of passport seekers.  We all know of flat owners who get the rent for providing an empty flat, run the water taps and the electricity for a few hours every month to run up a bill that the Passport Office and the Malta Police Force accept as proof of residence, knowing full well that it is a falsehood.

This lawyer was unfortunate or stupid to get stung, but this sting has helped unearth practices, widespread in our fantastic, Catholic honest country.

Shame on all of us for thinking that we can get away with cheating the rest of Europe for ever. The wasps are swarming around us and beginning to sting us, and we will get what we deserve.

It is time to clean the stables and to sweep out the manure that has been accumulating.

Thanks to the French and Dutch teams, the Kamra Tal-Avukati  should have courage to do the right thing and investigate all other law firms dealing in passports.

I implore the Commissioner of Inland Revenue to look back over the past five years, the prescription period for tax evasion, and to see whether all the applicants and recipients of Maltese passports have declared their global incomes for the year that they have resided in Malta.

A total of 1,000 new millionaire citizens with annual incomes of circa €10 million  each, would, at 30% tax rate, have to pay €3 billion to the Maltese coffers.

The Finance Minister has robbed us all of this revenue by not applying Maltese tax law to these new citizens. 

However illegal our ‘cash cow’ is, we dare not kill it by acting legally. So, we continue to act illegally and will continue to attract stings by foreign journalists. Please give us back an honest country that one can be proud to call one’s own.

John Vassallo is a former ambassador.

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