A hefty drinks bill racked up by Economy Minister Chris Cardona and two top aides during an overseas trip was the result of Dubai’s “expensive” alcohol.
An Economy Ministry spokeswoman told this newspaper that the €758 bill from a three-day official trip last year, was being looked into by the permanent secretary, after it was flagged by the National Audit Office.
“It is pertinent to note that the minister is in communication with the permanent secretary so as that expenditures which can be interpreted as not being in line with regulations by any officer, including the minister himself are refunded,” the spokeswoman said.
The extravagant drinks tab, €318 of which were from a hotel mini-bar, was among the findings of an NAO review of the ministry’s travel expenses.
During the Dubai trip, to mark Malta Day, Dr Cardona was joined by his chief of staff Mario Azzopardi and personal assistant Dana Bonnici.
According to the NAO, the boozy bill was “not related to official business” but was still claimed as travel expenses.
“The bill included €438 on alcohol, which is known for being quite expensive in Dubai,” the spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman said the total amount spent on alcohol was €438, with the rest of the money charged for meals. A breakdown of the drinking session was not provided.
Meanwhile, the minister’s drink spend was not the only extravagance flagged by the NAO.
It has also questioned a subsequent trip to Ukraine, during which a receipt for the purchase of €296 in mystery personal items, was paid for with taxpayer money.
Asked about this, the spokeswoman said the personal expenditure had been “erroneously placed with other bills presented from the Ukraine trip”.
The matter had been addressed after it was first raised by the NAO back in September and the ministry was reimbursed.
This, however, was not the end of the NAO’s findings. The report also questioned why the Ukraine trip, last June, had seen the €1,190 accommodation expenses included under both “hotel bill” and “other receipts” – an error that resulted in a ministry official being reimbursed rather than the ministry.
The NAO was also surprised to find that a “politically-exposed person” – no name given – was given cash advances for use during official trips abroad for the ministry.
The review found that nine out of 10 official and ministerial trips had anomalies in their expenses.
One three-day trip to Monaco in May 2015 for instance did not include €8,000 in accommodation expenses.
When the complete invoice for the Monaco trip was requested by the NAO to verify the nature of any additional charges, the ministry said that the full documentation was not available as it had “probably been misplaced”.
Other issues highlighted by the NAO included shortcomings when it came to the filing of expense receipts, as these were either missing, vague or in some cases even written in Chinese.
It ordered the ministry to review the receipts and travel expense documents to ensure these were all in order.
In its response to the NAO, the ministry said it would be taking necessary action to recoup the overpayment for the Ukraine trip, and that it “will try to limit the amount of cash advances”, and also ensure bills from official business are provided in the English language.
It made no mention of the Dubai drinks.
PN REACTION - MINISTER'S ACTIONS ARE AN INSULT TO WORKERS
In a reaction, the Nationalist Party said Dr Cardona's spending on drinks from a hotel minibar while he was supposed to be working was an insult to the workers. The spending by the minister and his chief of staff on drinks during two days was higher than the minimum wage, it observed.