Updated 4.40pm, adds Minister's reaction to resignation calls
Ministers should avoid crossing the line when supporting initiatives by private operators, the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life warned, after investigating Julia Farrugia Portelli's involvement in promotional videos about the passport scheme.
According to Commissioner George Hyzler, the former parliamentary secretary responsible for the scheme was not directly involved in the production of videos by Chetcuti Cauchi Advocates, a law firm whose licence to sell passports to foreign investors was recently suspended.
The firm had its rights to act as agents under the Individual Investor Programme suspended in September of 2019 after French journalists filmed a Maltese agent describing his friendship with former prime minister Joseph Muscat and Farrugia Portelli.
According to Hyzler, the promotional footage was not the result of bad faith but rather of "lack of thought on her part, as well as a failure to act promptly to have the videos removed once she became aware of the effects of her actions".
The investigation into the videos, shot in Castille, kicked off after lobby group Repubblika flagged the use of the Prime Minister's office in the promotional footage, arguing that it could represent a misuse of public resources as it created the impression that the firm "was being given advantages by the authorities over its competitors".
The appearance of Farrugia Portelli, now Tourism Minister, was "designed to create the impression that there exists a close link between Chetcuti Cauchi and the Maltese political class" and that this bond "would lead to advantages for Chetcuti Cauchi's clients that other firms do not enjoy" Repubblika had argued.
Farrugia Portelli, together with officials from government agencies that administer the scheme and representatives of the law firm itself, had featured in three videos produced by Chetcuti Cauchi to promote the IIP.
During Hyzler's investigation transpired that this may have given an improper advantage to the firm because the videos gave the impression that it was well connected with the authorities.
He said: “there is a fine line between promoting a government scheme and giving preferential treatment to a particular agent. In my opinion, this line has been crossed in the case under consideration.”
Following meetings by the Commissioner with Farrugia Portelli and Jean Philippe Chetcuti of Chetcuti Cauchi Advocates, the former parliamentary secretary had instructed the firm to remove the videos from its web pages.
The commissioner felt that this action, together with his own report, were a sufficient remedy in the circumstances.
Farrugia Portelli's behaviour was incorrect
Whoever watched the footage was given the impression of close ties between Farrugia Portelli's office and Chetcuti Cauchi, according to the commissioner's report.
This is because Farrugia Portelli, who approved IIP applications as parliamentary secretary responsible for the scheme, appeared in all three videos, and all footage was shot at Castille.
The prominence given to the firm's logos at the beginning and end of the promotional videos leaves no doubt that the footage was not only promoting the IIP, but also the firm, he said.
"The message seemingly passed on by the Chetcuti Cauchi firm is: we are insiders (aħna ta' gewwa). This message is made even stronger by the fact that Castille is the office of the prime minister and the executive power seat."
Ministers supporting initiatives by private operators, should follow up on the end result, and once their attention is drawn to the fact that their support is being abused or giving unfair advantage, they should take immediate steps to remedy the situation, Hyzler urged in his concluding remarks.
The commissioner's report can be read in the pdf link below.
Asked for her reaction to calls of resignation, a spokesperson said that while the minister had taken note of all of the report contents, "it is to be noted that the Commissioner for Standards in Public life recognised the fact that Farrugia Portelli did not act in bad faith".
The Commissioner concluded that adequate remedy was provided with the removal of the video in question and no further action is required, he added.
Earlier, Farrugia Portelli said in a statement that the commissioner had himself concluded that the fact that the films had been removed was a remedy in itself.
In a statement, Repubblika called for the minister’s resignation.
The group said it was worried about the fact that the police failed to respond to the commissioner’s query about whether an investigation on any related matter was under way.
Such behaviour was unacceptable and to be condemned and the government should take the required action.
Repubblika said it will continue to work against all abuse of power so that the behaviour of all persons in public life would be of the highest standard.
In another statement, the Nationalist Party also called for the minister’s resignation.
Public service reform spokesman Karol Aquilina said her position was no longer tenable and she should shoulder political responsibility.
The Prime Minister who now had to move from words to action and ensure that political responsibility is shouldered.
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