Tensions between Robert Abela and his predecessor Joseph Muscat have been reignited over a court’s annulment of the “fraudulent” Vitals and Steward hospitals deal.
The annulment comes amid a separate criminal investigation over suspected kickbacks the ex-Prime Minister received in connection with the same deal.
A source close to Abela said the prime minister is keen to contain the fallout from Friday’s court decision, as Muscat privately makes it clear he will not go down without a fight, should any criminal action be taken against him.
Abela faced a similar internal Labour earthquake last year, after Muscat’s home and office were searched in connection with the criminal investigation.
Muscat took to Facebook on Friday to say all decisions linked to the hospital deal were taken by cabinet. His comment was interpreted as an attempt to shift responsibility for the deal on all ministers who served in his cabinet. Late on Friday evening, Abela denied any involvement in the hospitals deal. Asked whether his position as prime minister was still tenable following the judgment, Abela said the court had annulled agreements signed by the government in 2014 and 2015 at a point in time when he had not yet been elected to parliament.
Yesterday, Muscat appeared to downplay his cabinet comments, saying they were nothing new, as cabinet’s role had already been established by a past auditor general report about the deal.
Former minister Evarist Bartolo accused Muscat of using cabinet as a “smoke screen”.
“Following comments about the cabinet in reaction to the court’s ruling on the hospitals’ deal with foreign companies: is it fair to use the cabinet as a smokescreen?” he said on Facebook early yesterday.
When contacted, Bartolo further distanced himself: “the hospitals deal details were not discussed in cabinet and the devil is in the details.”
Details were 'buried' in a memo
Another former cabinet member told Times of Malta that a common “tactic” used at the time was to bury certain details in a memo that would only be casually raised and discussed for a few minutes when ‘other matters’ were on the cabinet meeting’s agenda.
Ex-health minister Godfrey Farrugia told Times of Malta that Muscat, his chief of staff Keith Schembri and ex-minister Konrad Mizzi should “definitely” be investigated.
Asked whether he had spoken about his suspicions with other cabinet colleagues at the time, Farrugia said he had done so but added: “no one was ready to speak up because they did not want to jeopardise their position.”
Farrugia was elbowed out as health minister in March 2014, paving the way for Mizzi to take up the role as health supremo and steer the Vitals deal through.
The family doctor said that when he realised that people’s healthcare was being “brutally commoditised, jeopardised and possibly about to be reduced to another shady business deal”, he was left with no option but to resign and refuse any further ministerial posts.
Current health minister Chris Fearne said he is “fully comforted” by the instances in the court judgment in which the judge referred to “my consistent declarations and actions throughout”.
Fearne said he will be reserving further comment until tomorrow, when the court judgment and its consequences are discussed in parliament.
“As I already mentioned in parliament last week, I reaffirm that in all circumstances the medical service in the hospitals involved will be guaranteed and so will the employment of staff.”
'Health service must not suffer' – Fearne
Foreign Minister Ian Borg said Muscat’s declaration about cabinet decisions being collective ones are nothing new.
“If Dr Muscat said that cabinet decisions are collective ones, he’s not saying anything we don’t know. But again, I don’t know what he said, in what context he said it. But it’s a statement of fact that cabinet decisions are taken together.”
“Irrespective of court decisions, the health service must not suffer”.
In an opinion piece in today’s Times of Malta, former PN leader Adrian Delia says the hospitals’ deal was not a project to create a world-class health service but a “masterplan to defraud the Maltese people from its very conception”.
Independent candidate Arnold Cassola also reacted to Muscat’s comments yesterday, saying the former prime minister was implicating “veterans” like Bartolo, Louis Grech, Edward Scicluna, Chris Fearne, Leo Brincat, Manwel Mallia and even President George Vella.