Joseph Muscat wants a magistrate who is investigating the hospitals deal to quit the probe over Facebook posts published by her father and brother and by the activists who asked for the investigation.
A detailed look into a judicial application that Muscat filed last week spells out why the former prime minister is demanding that magistrate Gabriella Vella recuses herself from the inquiry, which he says she has refused to do.
It is natural that people will start to find difficulty perceiving objective impartiality- Joseph Muscat
In the application, he pointed out that earlier this year, the magistrate’s brother, Massimo Vella, posted a couple of comments to Facebook criticising the government after the court annulled the hospitals.
One comment was a reply to a post by someone else who was arguing that Adrian Delia could only fight his case against the hospitals deal thanks to the fact that the Labour government amended the public land law in 2017.
“So let me see if I get this straight,” Massimo Vella commented.
“We are congratulating Labour for creating a mechanism to solve a mess that it created itself. Good, that makes a lot of sense.”
In another comment he argued that the government could not complain about how it had its hands tied with the €100 million agreement.
“Who agreed to that clause? Me? So first you tie a rope around your neck and then say you’re afraid you’re going to get hanged,” he wrote.
Muscat 'implied in the mess'
In his judicial filing, Muscat argued that even though he was not mentioned by name, Vella was clearly implying him in the “mess” as he was the party leader when the deal was signed. Muscat said Vella was publicly expressing an opinion on a case that his sister was meant to be investigating with impartiality.
Furthermore, Muscat held, in 2019 the magistrate’s father, Aldo Vella, shared a post uploaded by PN MP Karol Aquilina urging people to attend a ‘Protest Against Corruption’ that was to be held on November 16 in Valletta.
The poster for the protest showed the faces of Muscat, Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.
Muscat maintained that the magistrate has a clear conflict of interest because she and her brother worked together in their father’s legal office and both her brother and her father showed clear support for Repubblika or publicly commented on the case that she is now investigating.
“It is clear that there is a certain prejudice from the close relatives of the inquiring magistrate and that this prejudice has been shown on other different occasions in different periods,” Muscat said in is application.
“In this context it is natural that people will start to find difficulty perceiving objective impartiality [in magistrate Vella’s work].”
'Conflict of interest'
Muscat also quoted several other court cases that acknowledged conflict of interest between a member of the judiciary and their close relatives. He cited the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct that says: “Although members of a judge’s family have every right to be politically active, the judge should recognise that such activities of close family members may, even if erroneously, sometimes adversely affect the public perception of the judge’s impartiality.”
NGO Repubblika had called for the magisterial inquiry into the hospitals deal in 2019. The investigation has not been concluded yet and over the past months Times of Malta and other investigative partners reported that investigators have been combing through Muscat’s bank accounts and income declarations for evidence of wrongdoing in the hospitals’ deal.
Last week, Times of Malta reported that investigators suspect consultancy payments that the former prime minister received in the months after he resigned were intended to hide kickbacks in plain sight.
Of particular interest is €60,000 that Muscat received from companies linked to the failed privatisation deal. The payments were part of a 36-month, €15,000-a-month consultancy contract Muscat signed, though payments stopped abruptly after four months.
Muscat reacted to the investigation by saying he was being framed, that information was being leaked from the inquiry and demanding that magistrate Vella step down immediately.
He has since announced that Vella declined his request to recuse herself and vowed to take “all the necessary steps” to ensure that the judicial process treats him fairly.
He also complained that Vella has declined his numerous requests to testify in the case.
In his judicial filing, Muscat also argued that the issue has now turned political, not least because lawyer Jason Azzopardi and Repubblika president Robert Aquilina publicly speak about him and the investigation in a way that suggests of the magistrate’s investigations.
They also knew his house would be searched last year, so much so that Aquilina was on site when it happened, he said.
Aquilina denied that, telling Times of Malta that he had no idea Muscat's house was to be searched.
Muscat challenged to publish decree
In a Facebook post, Aquilina on Friday challenged Muscat to publish the magistrate’s decree.
The case echoes another, somewhat similar case involving Repubblika, magistrate Nadine Lia and Joseph Muscat’s lawyer, Pawlu Lia.
Lia is hearing a case filed by Repubblika against the police commissioner and the attorney general, whom the NGO says failed to press charges against various Pilatus officials.
Repubblika has argued that Lia is unfit to hear that case because Pawlu Lia is her father-in-law.
Pawlu Lia served as a lawyer for Muscat and his wife and for Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. The NGO argues all are linked to the Pilatus case and Egrant or have ties with foreign investors who were involved in questionable deals with Muscat’s government and held accounts in Pilatus bank.