Updated at 3.45pm with minister's reaction

A magistrate on Tuesday expressed dismay that neither the Education Minister nor his top officials thought it fit to call in the police when faced with corruption allegations.

The court also noted it failed to understand why, once informed, the police charged the person making the claims with defamation rather than probe the bribery claims.

Finding contractor Giovann Vella not guilty of defaming Edward Caruana, a former senior official at the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools, Magistrate Ian Farrugia said he could not understand why serious claims of wrongdoing made by Mr Vella were not communicated to the police to be investigated.

Referring to a meeting held in August 2015, when the contractor made the allegations on Mr Caruana, a former canvasser of Education Minister Evarist Bartolo, the magistrate commented that none of those present, including the minister himself and senior officials, “found it opportune to ask the Police Commissioner to investigate the allegations made by Mr Vella”.

He said that not even Clint Camilleri, the present Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Animal Rights, who had been aware of the claims since at least August 25, 2015, deemed he should file a report to the police.

No legitimate reason why the police decided to follow such course of action

At the time, Mr Camilleri was the architect in charge of an extension project at the Victoria sixth form on behalf of the FTS.

The court noted that the only action taken by the Police Commissioner was to take a “shortcut and proceed with accusing Mr Vella with defamation”.

The magistrate remarked he could not find any legitimate reason why the police decided to follow such course of action.

While engaged in the school extension project three years ago, Mr Vella, of GV Gozo Developments, called a high FTS official reporting that Mr Caruana, then technical adviser to Mr Bartolo had asked him for a €30,000-bribe to facilitate government payments he was due.

READ: Canvassar hand-delivered €9m in cheques

It resulted from the judgment that Anthony Muscat, a senior official at the FTS, had formally informed Mr Bartolo about such claims during a meeting called by the minister on August 31 to review progress on the works. The meeting was also attended by Mr Caruana and his brother, Joseph, at the time permanent secretary.

After the meeting, Edward Caruana had filed a police report accusing Mr Vella of making false allegations against him and Mr Vella was accused in court of tarnishing Mr Caruana’s reputation.

The court, however, cleared Mr Vella, who was assisted by lawyer Joe Giglio.

Mr Caruana is facing allegations of corruption and wrongdoing in connection with works on government schools. In late 2016, then FTS chief executive Philip Rizzo accused Mr Bartolo of “knowing about wrongdoing by his person of trust for a long time and trying to dissuade him from formally reporting that wrongdoing”. Mr Rizzo resigned a few weeks later.

The minister had initially denied not reporting Mr Caruana immediately when he got to know about the claims but later said he wanted to wait for “a smoking gun” before reporting the alleged wrongdoing to the police.

Mr Caruana, who at the time of the allegations was constructing a block of flats in Rabat, is facing corruption charges in court.

Minister's reaction

A spokeswoman for the ministry said on Wednesday that allegation that Mr Bartolo did not act upon hearing such allegations was completely unfounded.

"Minister Bartolo has always directed such allegations to the competent authorities, and the meeting of August 31, 2016 referred to in this article was no exception. In fact, Mr Caruana and Mr Ciantar both submitted a separate police report with the allegation, and ministry officials were told by Mr Vella that he had already provided a statement to the police on this case," the spokeswoman said.

She added that fact that police were taking action on this case at the time is a confirmation of the above.

This, the spokesman said, was confirmed by the minister in court when he said on record that whenever such statements were made he insisted that immediate steps be taken.

A police report was made by the ministry shortly after this meeting, following a wide-ranging inquiry. All information found in this step was processed on to the competent authorities.

The minister, the spokeswoman said, had always taken the necessary steps when faced with allegations and would continue to do so in the future.

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