This was the year when political scandals dominated news headlines. Two Opposition MPs resigned. Government MPs associated with allegations of corruption, clientelism and discriminatory practices have so far avoided political responsibility.

The Nationalist Party launched a document earlier this month entitled ‘Restoring Trust in Politics’ that lists 100 proposals for good governance. Party leader Simon Busuttil said the governance document included measures aimed at addressing alleged corruption, fraud, conflict of interest, incompetence, irregularities, clientelism, nepotism and discriminatory practices in government.

When it was launched, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was not critical, which is unusual in a political climate where the two main political parties are usually at each other’s throats. Dr Muscat said the document included some proposals that were already being implemented and others that were needed.

The Times of Malta looks at some of the year’s main scandals and assesses how the PN document on good governance could prevent similar future scandals if its measures are adopted.

Deputy Labour Party leader Toni Abela

Different ministries seem to be falling over themselves in a scramble to have Labour deputy leader Toni Abela as their consultant. Dr Abela, who continues with his law practice, has been contracted to give legal advice to Transport Minister Joe Mizzi in two contracts worth €52,000 in total, as well as being given an additional €21,498 a year to act as legal consultant to the Oil Exploration Department, which also falls under the same minister.

In April 2013, a month after Labour’s return to power, Dr Abela was also engaged as legal consultant to the Social Solidarity Ministry in a contract worth €20,650 a year.

When Dr Abela was asked by the Times of Malta whether he had been awarded any other government contracts, he did not reply.

Under the current administration, most MPs have more than one remuneration paid from public taxes.

• PN good governance proposal

In order to ensure a strict distinction between the government and its political party, prohibit top party officials from holding a position of trust in government or on public boards.

Introduce a rule that any individual may not hold a position on more than one board of a public institution or agency and may not serve more than a maximum of two consecutive terms in that role.

Sadeen gets Żonqor Point for educational facility

The announcement of an agreement with a Jordanian contractor to build a new university on 90,000 square metres of land at Żonqor Point, Marsascala, led to a public uproar and the largest environmental protest ever held in the country.

While the government later reduced the slice of land in an Outside Development Zone to 18,000 square metres, plus gave the Jordanian investor Dock No 1 in Cospicua, it did not succeed in halting opposition to the project.

Laws on the accreditation of universities in Malta were changed amid strong criticism that this was done to lower standards to accommodate the new university.

The site selection process was severely criticised when it emerged it was put forward by the planning regulator – Mepa – on the Prime Minister’s instructions.

Mepa CEO Johann Buttigieg admitted the authority’s own environment planning department was not involved in the site selection exercise because the Prime Minister’s Office had insisted it should be kept confidential.

One of those adamantly opposing the project at Żonqor was PL MP Marlene Farrugia, who has since left the party to become an independent MP after her strong criticism on the split of the environmental and planning functions of Mepa.

• PN good governance proposal

Require, in the interests of ensuring the environment is safeguarded, that all laws shall be routinely vetted for their impact on the environment before being presented to Parliament.

Former PN Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono

The husband of former PN Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono is facing 13 charges, including misappropriation of funds and fraud, in a case that is currently being heard in court.

Anthony Debono was the officer-in-charge at the Gozo Ministry’s Construction and Maintenance Unit (CMU). He is accused of involvement in a works-for-votes scheme, through which the resources of the ministry were allegedly used to carry out works for the benefit of individual constituents.

A total of 22 alleged irregular works were flagged during investigations, and these were carried out between 2004 and the 2013 general election. The case came to the fore after a contractor turned whistle-blower accusedMr Debono of tasking him to do works for which he was not paid.

Mr Debono’s wife resigned from the PN parliamentary group in May, staying on as an independent MP. She has denied all claims against her and her husband. Her case led to criticism that the PL kept the PN’s secrets hidden with the aim of making them public when it needed to divert attention.

• PN good governance proposal

Introduce a legal obligation for MPs who learn, or have a reasonable suspicion, that another MP has committed an abuse of power or an illegal act, including corruption, to report the matter immediately to the competent authorities without any delay – and criminal punishment for failure to do so.

Economy Minister Chris Cardona

Economy Minister Chris Cardona is a shareholder in a company, together with his chief of staff, Mario Azzopardi. Apart from exposing this fact, this newspaper also revealed that the company had not presented its annual accounts to the MFSA, as required by law, for the past seven years.

When questioned, Dr Cardona, whose portfolio also includes small businesses, said he was aware of the situation and was soliciting the company’s directors, including his chief of staff, to obey the law. Dr Cardona denied breaching the ministerial code of ethics by employing his business partner.

• PN good governance proposal

Preclude ministers and parliamentary secretaries from recruiting business partners in their secretariat.

Mepa permit for Parliamentary Secretary Ian Borg’s Rabat property

The Permanent Commission Against Corruption has endorsed the conclusions of a report by the Ombudsman on a controversial Mepa permit granted to Parliamentary Secretary Ian Borg.

The report drafted by Environment and Planning Commissioner David Pace highlighted the “devious manner” in which Dr Borg applied for the development permit. The Ombudsman’s office concluded that the permit should be reassessed, something the planning authority has ruled out.

The report by the corruption watchdog validated the Ombudsman’s concerns yet concluded there was not sufficient evidence to prove corruption beyond a reasonable doubt according to criminal law.

The PN, together with three environmental organisations – Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar, Ramblers Malta, and Friends of the Earth – said Dr Borg’s position was untenable. It proposed that prior to the appointment of the new planning authority’s executive chairman there should be a public hearing in Parliament. The PN also proposed that three members of the new environment and planning authorities be nominated by NGOs.

• PN good governance proposal

Two-thirds majority rule in Parliament for the appointment of positions of high public office and authorities.

Sai Mizzi Liang

Sai Mizzi Liang, the wife of Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi, is receiving around €13,000 a month as Malta Enterprise’s envoy to China. Her appointment was controversial from the start, as she was whipped out of nowhere and given a direct appointment soon after the 2013 general election.

Her office address remained a mystery until October, when a Consulate General office for Malta was launched. There is still no telephone number on which to contact her, even though her office is supposed to be handling visas for Malta.

Despite telling the Maltese public to judge her on her achievements during a whirlwind visit in July, Ms Mizzi Liang has so far not presented tangible achievements to justify her salary.

• PN good governance proposal

Refrain from appointing the spouses, partners, children or parents of ministers and parliamentary secretaries in the private secretariats of government ministries, in public boards or in other positions of trust.

Positions of trust

A total of 542 people are currently employed with the government in ‘positions of trust’.

Warnings about such recruitment have been voiced by the Office of the Ombudsman as well as the Public Service Commission, which said in several reports that they were “unconstitutional”.

They were employed without following the usual recruitment procedures, with some employees given the vague job description “to do what is necessary”.

The people recruited to positions of trust under the PL administration range from a dog handler to cleaners and drivers, to appointments on company boards and government authorities.

• PN good governance proposal

Limit positions of trust to where they are truly inevitable, such as the secretaries of ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

Use of public funds and assets

The Land Department has been dogged by controversy over its handling of public land. The major scandal involved the government’s purchase of Café Premier in Valletta, which was slammed in a report by the National Audit Office.

The Auditor General said the government did not get value for money, even though the property was bought at market value. The government controversially repossessed the venue soon after the general election for €4.2 million from its bankrupt owners.

In another report by the NAO, this time focusing on the Memorial Building in Valletta, the headquarters of the General Workers Union, the Auditor General found irregularities in the way the GWU leased part of the premises to Arms Ltd.

An investigation was carried out at the request of the Opposition, which argued that the lease was in breach of an emphyteutical agreement under which the government had originally handed the property to the GWU.

This newspaper then revealed the union was legally bound to pay at least €3.2 million for its landmark Valletta property before it could lease the building.

• PN good governance proposal

Submit to Parliament regular accounts of all disposal of land which does not require parliamentary approval, for its information and scrutiny.

Ban the transfer of public property to political parties. Complete the development of a publicly accessible register of all public land and property, including records of every transaction made on use, rent or sale of such properties.

The Gaffarena scandals

The government paid €1.65 million for half ownership of a property in Valletta that an investor had bought for a fraction of the price just weeks earlier, as revealed by a Times of Malta investigation.

The land the government gave Mark Gaffarena as part of the controversial deal – land that added value to his existing properties – was worth at least double, according to conservative estimates by independent architects.

Their assessment increased the value of the land by at least €1.6 million, doubling the value of the payment he got to €3.2 million.

The Gaffarena family has been at the centre of controversy because of its links to an illegal petrol station built on ODZ land in Luqa, a station that was allowed to operate soon after the Labour Party came to power.

The scandal is subject to two investigations, one by the government’s Internal Audit Unit and another by the National Audit Office.

Following the Old Mint Street scandal, the Gaffarena name became toxic, leading to the resignation of PN spokesperson on culture and arts Joe Cassar for links to the family under the former administration, when he was Parliamentary Secretary for Health.

No member of government has as yet been held politically accountable for the Old Mint Street scandal despite the internal investigation having been concluded. The government said it is awaiting the conclusion of the NAO report.

• PN good governance proposal

Require MPs to exercise due discretion and refrain from associating themselves with unsavoury characters.

Prohibit ministers or members of the government from accepting gifts or hospitality valued at more than €150 where these are given by virtue of public office and create an obligation. Where gifts exceed this amount but do not create an obligation, they must be declared and published in a register held by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life (a position that would be created to ensure good governance).

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