At least eight MEP candidates appear to have exceeded the legal limit on campaign expenditure, according to an analysis conducted by The Sunday Times, while PN candidate Edward Demicoli said yesterday that "the law is being broken by almost everyone".

After the majority of Nationalist and Labour Party candidates refused to disclose their campaign expenses last week, this newspaper conducted an exercise to estimate propaganda material costs for the European Parliament election campaign.

These included door-to-door leaflets, print and TV advertising, events, websites and merchandise. Even by the most conservative estimates, it is clear that some candidates did not stick to the legal limit of around €18,000.

Personal expenditure as well as that by third parties on their behalf was taken into account, as the law itself stipulates.

Labour Party MEP John Attard Montalto appears to have been the biggest spender, splashing out tens of thousands of euros on his campaign in a bid to be re-elected.

Nationalist Party MEP David Casa topped his promotional material with more than 22 events between January and June, ranging from coffee mornings to parties in venues catering for thousands of people. Although event announcements state that 'friends' organised them, the law makes it clear that these have to be included in the candidate's expenses.

Simon Busuttil's 92-page booklet highlighting his work during his five-year stint in Brussels was among his major expenses, together with the free merchandise distributed through his website.

Another Brussels resident, Sharon Ellul Bonici, also spent heavily on her campaign, which drew to a close with a party at an exclusive Paceville club, complete with free tickets to Ibiza and Italy, mobile phones and other gifts.

Frank Portelli's comeback to the political scene cost him. The candidate took out full-page advertisements and distributed booklets to convince households to vote for him.

Labour candidate Marlene Mizzi also launched her political career with a bang, as did Nationalist candidate Roberta Metsola Tedesco Triccas.

Meanwhile, Louis Grech, another PL MEP, stood out in recent days with his costly double-page spread advertisements on the print media.

The limit is the same as that set for the 2004 European Parliament elections, the Office of the Prime Minister confirmed. Legal notice 313 of 2004 states: "No sum shall be paid and no expense shall be incurred by a candidate at an election of members of the European Parliament or his election agent whether before, during or after an election on account of or in respect of the conduct of such election, in excess of Lm8,000".

The law also states that the Prime Minister may from time to time establish a new limit, but this was not done for this election.

Last week, The Sunday Times contacted 33 candidates, asking them to disclose their expenses. An e-mail inadvertently forwarded to this newspaper revealed Nationalist Party EP campaign chief Stefano Mallia instructing party candidates on how to reply without shedding any light on figures.

E-mails and telephone calls made to the selected candidates in the past week to confirm or deny The Sunday Times' calculations remained unanswered. The candidates were also asked whether they intend to take an oath that their expenses were within the legal limit, as required by law.

These eight candidates are not the only big spenders. Other candidates have invested heavily in their electoral campaign.

Mr Demicoli was the only candidate who admitted exceeding the campaign budget. The Nationalist candidate said he felt he had no option because the limit is "completely ridiculous".

"It is a sham, made even more so by the fact that the imposed limits are ignored by nearly all the candidates and then nobody admits to it. This is a known fact, and a cursory look at the adverts and the tons of leaflets received through the post shows this law is being broken by almost everyone," he said, adding his campaign was "by far" one of the least expensive.

Although the 38-year-old spent around €16,000, money spent on four parties organised by Mr Demicoli's friends also formed part of the relevant expenses.

"I will not apologise for failing to play the game by the same old rules - first break the law and then swear by God that I didn't," Mr Demicoli said.

He acknowledged that he might have offended "the law-abiding sensitivities" of a number of his voters by choosing to ignore the limit.

"If I gave the impression that I acted with contempt towards our system of law, allow me to declare this was not my wish, and to unreservedly apologise," he said, adding that he is trying to raise awareness about the "obsoleteness" of the limits.

The limit on expenditure was derived from the law regulating national elections, which caps expenditure at €1,400 per district. For the MEP elections, Malta is considered to be one district, so this figure is multiplied by the 13 districts in national elections. The figure was established in the 1980s and has not been revised since.

The law is in place to ensure that each candidate has an equal chance of being elected. If properly enforced, it could eliminate any advantage afforded by wealthier candidates and minimise the power of incumbency.

Six of the eight candidates listed by The Sunday Times have served as MEPs or work in Brussels where earnings are significantly higher than the Maltese average.

One of those six, Ms Metsola Tedesco Triccas, replied to The Sunday Times' questions. She said: "My campaign expenses have been within the parameters established by law and (I) will therefore make a declaration to this effect. Once these have been submitted to the Electoral Commission, I will have no difficulty in making these public."

Ms Metsola Tedesco Triccas's advertising in the print media alone is valued over €5,500. In addition, her expenses included the front cover of a popular magazine, the distribution of an eight-page booklet to thousands of Maltese households, and a state-of-the-art website with free downloads and Roberta TV.

Her promotion also included an event on May 22 at Tattingers nightclub with free entrance and two drinks per person, and another reception at the Upper Barrakka Gardens where she extended a general invitation to members of the public, among other expenses. The PN also spent a significant amount of money on her behalf.

The big parties' expenditure for elections puts most independent candidates at a disadvantage.

One notable exception is Mary Gauci of Libertas, whose financial backing by Irish millionaire Declan Ganley meant she could afford to splash her campaign on billboards.

Those candidates who spent more than the established limit now face two options: they can either take a false oath or make a false declaration of expenses. Or the Prime Minister could choose to raise the legal limit.

The Electoral Commissioner said his office will not take action against candidates who exceeded the limit: "The Commission receives the declaration and publishes it in the Government Gazette. If anybody feels that the declaration is incorrect, then that person should complain (to) the police, or something like that".

PN candidate Alan Deidun told The Sunday Times: "The oath is a farce. I saw one candidate's bill for fliers of €11,000 and that's just one invoice. The system is obviously not working and so it helps those who have the money to stay on in their posts. People like me, who do not have that kind of money to spend, cannot compete."

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