He has been an auditor for 40 years and spent most of his professional life in Europe working for big firms like Ferrari. But former CEO of the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools Philip Rizzo has been in the line of fire for revealing that hundreds of thousands of euros in public funds went missing from the government’s school construction agency. He speaks openly to Ivan Camilleri about his 2013 political choice and what he thinks four years later.
Mr Rizzo, you come from a Nationalist family background, even though you have never shied away from controversy, particularly when flagging wrongdoing and corruption. What led you to come out in favour of Labour and Joseph Muscat in 2013?
I always voted PN until the 2013 election. I think that the 2008-2013 Gonzi administration was out of sync and as trustworthy Robert Arrigo acknowledged, the tyres of the bus had deflated. It was time for a change. Over the years, I also grew in my role as the father of a person with intellectual disability and thought that some people deserved more help than they had ever got.
But what convinced you about Joseph Muscat?
I liked what he was saying. Here we had a young economist – something already attractive with my background – well-spoken and with what seemed to be a genuine agenda for rule by the many for the benefit of all. I was convinced by his Socjeta Gusta proposals that he would give increased importance to Malta’s weakest and specifically build large residences that would be more appropriate for adults with intellectual challenges than small units, which are best for the physically challenged.
With hindsight and with everything I have experienced first-hand in the last four years, I am ashamed to have voted the way I did so precipitously. However, at that time, I wasn’t the only one.
As soon as Labour was swept into power, you were called to contribute. What was your experience of the first days of Labour in power?
My first months as advisor to then Parliamentary Secretary Franco Mercieca were extremely positive. I must say that I still have a lot of time for Mercieca, as I think that he was doing a fantastic job until he realised that he couldn’t afford to continue to serve. We drafted laws and pushed hard the agendas for people with special needs. However, much changed when Franco left.
Prime Minister Muscat looked the other way when I requested moral support by providing tangible evidence on corruption
What changed? What do you mean?
Immediately after Mr Mercieca stepped down I was head-hunted by the Prime Minister and Minister Evarist Bartolo to operate the Employment and Training Corporation, which Alfred Grixti had run like a każin tal-banda. Not being a political person, I was not appointed as a chairman – that position was reserved for Clyde Caruana, a 29-year-old theorist at the time.
I was very enthusiastic to contribute, and at first, we were doing very well together trying to re-engineer the important national jobs agency. Together with a very competent in-house management team, we succeeded in turning the agency around within 12 months. Job creation results spoke for themselves.
So what made you leave? What went wrong?
We had really gone into great detail to restructure the agency, putting in a professional team and empowering staff.
Then, in December 2014, when my top management team submitted a list of deserving staff promotions, Mr Caruana immediately asked me whether I had checked the nominees’ colour.
I was shocked. My immediate response was to say, “Yes, they are all white,” and then I left the room.
Did you report this?
Yes. What Mr Caruana said shocked me so much that I reported the matter both to Minister Bartolo and to the Prime Minister.
And what did they tell you?
Nothing. All I got was a smile.
You never get a direct response from the Prime Minister.
But was this the only thing that annoyed you?
No. it was the interference in day-to-day business by the 29-year-old chairman. Do you believe that as CEO, I got to know that the ETC had issued a multimillion-euro training tender from someone outside the organisation?
What do you mean?
The chairman issued a tender to award a multimillion project for training courses, and the CEO and the management didn’t know. When I finally got hold of this, I realised that the situation was even worse, as it showed that the ETC itself was not going to be involved but only a team of three external people nominated by the chairman. It was obviously made for some purpose.
Again, did you report this?
When I told Minister Bartolo about it, he pretended not to know anything. I told him that such a tender could only have been issued through the signature of his permanent secretary. On a Friday, he promised me that the tender would be withdrawn... by the following Monday he had himself reversed the withdrawal decision.
You stepped down from the ETC shortly after. What made you return as CEO of the FTS – again under Minister Bartolo?
Both the Prime Minister and Mr Bartolo pressured me to continue to work for the administration, as they didn’t want to lose me. After a lot of hesitation, I accepted to become the FTS CEO, as Mr Bartolo insisted that he needed someone to clear the mess. He assured me that he was not like the others [ministers], as he did things differently and I could work without pressure.
I started at the FTS on April 13, 2016, at 7.30am. Barely hours into the topmost position within the €20-million-a-year school building programme, I discovered that the chief operations officer was suffering chest pains as a result of his corruption warning long having been unheeded by the ministry, that the chief financial officer was being bullied to allow builders’ payment cheques to be hand-delivered by Edward Caruana, Mr Bartolo’s canvasser, whose brother was the ministry’s permanent secretary, and that an external project manager had been appointed to head another €8 million school building project just a few weeks after it was alleged that he had requested a €30,000 bribe from a Gozitan contractor and as an accomplice of the same permanent secretary’s brother.
Was the minister aware of all this?
Definitely so. On my first day I made sure to inform him of everything. His response was: That is why I sent you there!
Within days into my job, I was having to resist pressure to authorise payment of invoices for works undertaken close to a year earlier which, upon my investigation, proved to be forgeries despite a formal correctness certification by a practising Gozitan architect. When I asked about this architect, I was given the usual response: she is of the right colour, related to that one and her uncle is so and so.
Did you personally report all these findings to the minister and Prime Minister?
Not only did I tell them, but all was made in writing.
By June 2016, after in-depth investigations, I held irrefutable proof of forgeries and corruption by the minister’s canvasser, the brother of the permanent secretary. I went to the minister and confirmed my earlier convictions with documentary evidence.
He told me “żomm kollox fil-komma għal meta tiġi bżonn”. I told him. Why are you saying this? You appointed me to do a job and I don’t need any exit. I’m going to the police with this. He said that it was not proof enough and in June 2016, tried all ways to dissuade me from reporting.
It is wholly inconceivable any ‘floater’ who is altruistic… should vote for Muscat’s Labour again
Did you go to the PM with this?
Over the next two months I compiled a 200-page dosser – which has been at the police since last September – with all the proof and related documents. All is there. When the 2016-7 new schools were completed I sent a preview of my dossier to Dr Muscat and told him that I was going to the police with all this.
What was Dr Muscat’s response?
He asked me if I had the permission of the minister to go to the police. He told me to go to the minister. I told him I had been doing so for months and nothing happened.
Did Dr Muscat try to walk you away from this? Did he offer you something else?
No – not blatantly. But he insisted that he was not going into this, as it was the minister’s turf. I have no hesitation to say that he distinctly didn’t want to get involved. He told me: ‘We will find a way out of this, no? If you want another job…’
What do you mean? Did he try to buy your silence?
His exact words were: ‘I believe that without compromising, we can find another place for you.’
So how do you describe the way the he treated you on this corruption affair?
My direct experience was that Prime Minister Muscat looked the other way when I requested moral support by providing tangible evidence on corruption within Mr Bartolo’s area of executive responsibility.
All I have been able to do since is to thank God for having inspired in me the strength to resign with sufficient disclosure of good reasons in writing and wait for the opportunity to testify in court in the seemingly unlikely event that charges against the public officers who are Labour Party supporters and who perpetrated economic crimes are ever pressed by the police.
There were a lot of switchers like you four years ago, and many had their good reason to vote Labour. The PN went out of sync after so many years in government. Doesn’t Muscat deserve another chance, even if he made huge mistakes?
To my mind, it is wholly inconceivable any ‘floater’ who is altruistic and counts more than merely that which reaches his own pockets should vote for Muscat’s Labour again, at least until formal court of law judgments disprove the many corruption allegations.
The calling of an early election during Malta’s long-awaited EU presidency when the economy was doing well provides irrefutable prima facie evidence that more than “just something small” is wrong.
This time round, I am not voting blue, red, orange or green. I am choosing between what is right and what is wrong. I am comforted by the belief that I have always been on the right side when essential choices are made. I will keep to this principle.