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‘If some people don’t believe me, that’s their prerogative’

Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando has waged war on the person who helped him during the 2008 election campaign to tell a convincing story. But will he ever be believed again? Christian Peregin asks the questions.

Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando did not warn the government before voting with the opposition to oust a key Cabinet member, unlike fellow backbencher Franco Debono who constantly called for a minister’s head.

It wasn’t a drastic act. It was what I thought needed to be done

Nor did he use his grievances to try and obtain a more prominent position within the administration. That is not his “style”, he says.

Instead, the dentist-turned-divorce-campaigner hid in the grass, eyeing his prey, and pounced stealthily at the last minute.

And with a single raise of the hand, he brought down Richard Cachia Caruana – the man he claimed was invincible.

The Żebbug MP, who has been elected convincingly since 1996, insists he is only answerable to the electorate, or as he puts it, the 5,100 people who elected him.

“No one else has the right to question my voting patterns,” he says.

But he is not contesting the next election, meaning his constituents will not be able to pass judgment – though at some point in future he hopes to be part of the PN ticket again, once the party rids itself of what he describes as “the clique”.

Last Sunday, as his future wife Carmen Ciantar sat behind Labour leader Joseph Muscat, Dr Pullicino Orlando was being accused of colluding with Labour.

Interviewed by The Sunday Times, outgoing EU Ambassador Richard Cachia Caruana also talked at length about the days leading up to the 2008 election when Dr Pullicino Orlando was accused of “corruption” by Labour over the infamous Mistra saga.

The EU ambassador and party strategist said that at the time he had advised Dr Pullicino: “If you want people to think you are innocent, follow (former Labour leader) Alfred Sant around everywhere. People will understand that only an innocent person would do this.”

However, Mr Cachia Caruana had a different opinion of the MP at the end of the election campaign and in the interview last week stated: “I regret to say Dr Sant probably summed him up correctly.”

Mr Cachia Caruana was referring to a damning assessment of the MP by Dr Sant, who only last year described Dr Pullicino Orlando as “morally and politically corrupt” even though he agreed with his stand on divorce.

The Sunday Times scheduled an interview with Dr Pullicino Orlando last Tuesday to grill him on the revelations made by Mr Cachia Caruana – that the MP refused to be upfront over his voting intentions and that he colluded with Labour – which raised fresh questions about the MP’s honesty, integrity and credibility.

But an hour-and-a-half before the interview, Dr Pullicino Orlando turned up the heat of an already sweltering Tuesday afternoon and threw the Labour collusion accusation back at Mr Cachia Caruana.

Dr Pullicino Orlando e-mailed the PN executive alleging Mr Cachia Caruana held private meetings with high-ranking Labour government officials after the 1996 election to “feather his nest”. The EU Ambassdor described the claims as “ridiculous”.

Dr Pullicino Orlando issued a statement saying he would elaborate on why the PN strategist should be expelled from the PN in an interview with this newspaper.

The interview was conducted as planned, after which he was allowed to expound on his allegations. However, he refused to substantiate his claims, saying he would only do so at the PN executive meeting. But he was even less willing to take questions about the Mistra scandal which caused his fall from grace in 2008.

At the mere mention of Mistra, he says he stands by every word he uttered, pointing out that he stuck to his story since day one, while Mr Cachia Caruana had “changed his version four times”.

“In his eyes I have switched from being a victim to a villain, to a victim and back to a villain again… I will ask your readers to judge who is telling the truth and who is lying. I have no more time to waste on this subject,” he says, before the questions even begin.

A week before the 2008 election, an article published in The Times under Dr Pullicino Orlando’s name dismissed allegations Dr Sant was about to make in his regard as mere “gossip”.

Pre-emptively defending the impending revelation by Labour that the MP had knowledge of an application to construct a disco on virgin land in Mistra, Dr Pullicino Orlando stated in the article: “I own a plot of land near the sea which has been rented out to others for some time now. Three years ago, these others applied for a permit to build an underground lavatory and an open-air dance floor less than two metres high... I don’t even know the applicants.”

In a letter to The Times published on the last day of the campaign, Dr Pullicino Orlando responded to a question about whether those planning to build the nightclub obtained his signed approval.

“I repeat, my signed approval [for the Mepa application] was not necessary,” he wrote.

However, he was accused of omitting a crucial element of the truth when that night, Dr Sant published a contract Dr Pullicino Orlando signed only two months earlier outlining how he would be paid almost €2 million over 15 years for his field to be used as a “nightclub, discotheque, bar, restaurant and pool facilities with parking” – a significant step up from the underground lavatory and platform the MP had talked about in his opening article on the subject.

The PN strategy team defending Dr Pullicino Orlando did not know about this damning document until the very last day of the campaign. (Mr Cachia Caruana recalled last week how he went home upon discovering this fact “in a crisis” and told his family to give Dr Pullicino Orlando only their last vote.)

However, Dr Pullicino Orlando speaks as brazenly as he did in 2008, even though his face clearly displays a level of discomfort.

“I stand by what I said, word for word. I’ve already spoken about that contract. Anyone who is renting property from someone else asks for anything imaginable he might require in the distant future even if he is not planning to do so.

“If you rent a flat you might say you plan to install a massive satellite dish on the roof even if you do not want one. That is what happened when I signed the contract.”

However, in this case, an outline development permit had already been issued for this envisioned nightclub to be built outside the development zone.

After the election, it emerged in court how the permit was issued contrary to the case officer’s recommendations, following strong lobbying from Dr Pullicino Orlando, who led people to believe he was lobbying on behalf of a constituent.

“Let me be blunt and get down to the nitty-gritty. Let us not miss the wood for the trees. I was being accused of corruption. And it was very taxing to face my accuser publicly. I’m not super human, that’s why I broke down,” he says, referring to a well-known party meeting where he burst into tears as he protested his innocence.

At no point in time in my life will I ever be a candidate with the Labour Party... Definitely not

“Last time I checked I was never taken to court on corruption charges and I haven’t been escorted here wearing handcuffs. I have nothing further to add,” he says, a phrase he would repeat at least 10 times during the interview.

Visibly frustrated with the line of questioning, Dr Pullicino Orlando adds: “I have been answering the same questions since 2008. You might not agree with me. I stand to be judged by the people. If some people don’t believe me, that is their prerogative.”

Later, he reveals that the original article (‘Street-corner gossip’) was written by columnist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia.

He claims he was driven to Ms Caruana Galizia’s house in Bidnija, begrudgingly, accompanied by Gordon Pisani (now the Prime Minister’s spokesman).

Dr Pullicino Orlando provided her with information about the Mistra application andshe produced the article on the basis of what he told her.

Today, Dr Pullicino Orlando describes Ms Caruana Galizia as the spokesman(“portavoce”) of Mr Cachia Caruana, used to conduct attacks on those who are not part of the “clique” of subservient Nationalists.

His evidence? He says she told him some weeks after the 2008 election that Mr Cachia Caruana asked her to pressure him into resigning his seat. Yet Ms Caruana Galizia denied this under oath and Mr Cachia Caruana also denies trying to force his resignation.

As it turned out, Ms Caruana Galizia actually did the opposite and wrote an article telling off those in government who were trying to get rid of Dr Pullicino Orlando – an article he read out in Parliament to justify his vote.

But doesn’t his own example prove him wrong?

“No. That was the exception that proves the rule,” he says.

Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando Smith?

Aged 48, months before he gets married for the second time, Dr Pullicino Orlando (as he has long been known) is changing his surname to Pullicino Orlando Smith.

He says this is being done to rectify a “clerical error” which saw him listed as Jeffrey Pullicino on his birth certificate.

His passport, he says, has always combined his father’s surname with his mother’s maiden surname Orlando Smith – his mother being the daughter of former Labour Party general secretary Ġuzè Orlando Smith.

He refutes the suggestion that he is making the change for electoral reasons.

“At no point in time in my life will I ever be a candidate with the Labour Party... Definitely not,” he says.

“I would never even vote for Labour. I would feel supremely uncomfortable.”

In fact, he says he is planning not to vote at all at the next election.

He also strongly denies that his future wife, a long-time Labour supporter, will be a candidate, though he is unashamed that she exercises her constitutional right to support a party of her choice – something, he says, she never hid from anyone during their 10-year relationship.

On the vote in Parliament

When did you decide to vote against Malta’s EU Ambassador Richard Cachia Caruana?

After taking into consideration what was said at the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Not before the motion was even presented?

Definitely not.

Mr Cachia Caruana says he got a message from a Labour contact when the motion was presented saying: “We had no choice, this came from your side and not from the usual person.” Is he lying?

Without wishing to call him a liar, I’m sure everyone was surprised when it came to the way I voted. So I’m pretty sure Mr Cachia Caruana wasn’t expecting me to vote the way I did.

What was the main reason for your vote?

I’m in favour of Malta participating in Partnership for Peace. But when the Labour Party withdrew participation in 1996 it had an electoral mandate.

To reactivate membership we should have included it in an electoral programme or discussed it in Parliament.

It’s very clear from the Wikileaks cables that Mr Cachia Caruana did his utmost to bypass parliamentary procedure. Nothing he said, and none of the documents presented, convinced me otherwise.

The Prime Minister contradicted the Wikileaks cables. He presented documentation showing that between 2004 and 2008, Mr Cachia Caruana was actually trying to gain Malta access to EU-Nato discussions without joining PfP. When that failed, in 2008, the Prime Minister decided to reactivate membership. Mr Cachia Caruana says he did not even know what the Prime Minister said to the US Ambassador. If your argument stands, shouldn’t the Prime Minister or the Foreign Minister get the blame? Why Mr Cachia Caruana?

I’m pretty sure it was left up to him to do all the manoeuvring and I do not believe him when he says he was not aware what was going on.

Isn’t “pretty sure” not a solid enough justification for such a drastic act in Parliament?

It wasn’t a drastic act. It was what I thought needed to be done.

If the motion was directed at the Prime Minister or the Foreign Minister, would you have done the same?

I would have taken everything into consideration.

Besides the Wikileaks documents, was there any other evidence to support your claims?

Yes. I went back to the way a number of Nationalist MPs and personalities have been treated by Mr Cachia Caruana’s clique to explain why I thought the Wikileaks cables were absolutely convincing.

Convincing enough for him to get the blame for Cabinet-approved actions?

Mr Cachia Caruana is a very prominent and forceful ex-officio member of the Cabinet.

But should he be held singularly responsible for not consulting Parliament on Malta’s reactivation of PfP even though it was not in his remit to do so?

We’re speaking about theoretical situations. He was the person who was mentioned in the motion.

But what about the fact that it was not his job? Mr Cachia Caruana is not the connection to Parliament, the Foreign Minister is.

He is an ex-officio member of Cabinet. I have nothing else to say on this subject.

In an interview on One TV in March you said you may have many defects but people always know where they stood with you? Did Mr Cachia Caruana know where he stood with you?

I am not in the habit of doing things in an underhanded way. Look at what I am doing today. If I feel someone should be expelled from my party – as I feel Mr Cachia Caruana should – I do that in a very in-your-face kind of way. That’s my style.

But you didn’t tell him how you’d vote.

I do not believe Mr Cachia Caruana has any right whatsoever to expect me to tell him about my voting intentions. The fact that he thinks he has the right strengthens my arguments about his arrogance when it comes to the democratic process.

What about the party Whip, the Nationalist parliamentary group, the Prime Minister... Didn’t these deserve to know?

We could spend all the time in the world speaking about how the parliamentary group has been bypassed on a certain number of issues but it merits another interview.

Do you deny that you told Mr Cachia Caruana: “I didn’t vote against Austin Gatt who did me so much harm, why would I vote against you?” Did you say that?

I made it absolutely clear to Mr Cachia Caruana that I would never use my position in Parliament to vote for a personal reason.

But he offered you his scalp. He said he was prepared to step down if you were going to vote in this way.

That’s not the way things are done in a democracy.

If this was just about the Wikileaks documents, couldn’t you have spared the Prime Minister the embarrassment? If you told Mr Cachia Caruana you had a problem and he resigned, wouldn’t justice have been served?

This is not about me wanting my pound of flesh. If someone thought he could bypass Parliament once again it shows he holds the highest institution in the country in disdain. I have nothing else to say.

But the Prime Minister and the PN parliamentary group would agree that you should have expressed yourself before. When you disagreed with the St John’s Co-Cathedral project you made your intentions of clear and they dropped the proposal before a vote.

I can’t be any clearer than I have been already. The whole situation revolves around the state of the parliamentary group. A number of serious issues have been decided behind the parliamentary group’s back so if anyone expected me to declare my voting intentions without asking me... Had the Whip asked me, had the Prime Minister asked me directly... I would have probably indicated...

Are you saying the Prime Minister never asked you how you would vote?

Never asked me directly.

But he met you the week the motion was presented.

He explained to me that he felt that Mr Cachia Caruana should be given the opportunity to explain his stand at the Foreign Affairs Committee and I absolutely agreed with him.

And he never asked you whether you had any issues with the motion?

The Prime Minister never asked me nor did the Whip.

Are you saying Mr Cachia Caruana was the only person to ask you how you would vote?

Yes, he has no right to do that.

In an interview you criticised Mr Cachia Caruana for acting in a Machiavellian way. Didn’t you act in a Machiavellian way?

Not at all, I’m quite an in-your-face kind of chap. Had I been asked directly by my Whip or by my Prime Minister... which is what happened in the St John’s Co-Cathedral issue... I’ll never lie.

Were you asked by intermediaries? By other Nationalist MPs?

No.

Does it worry you that everyone seems to think this wasn’t just about bypassing Parliament but about a grudge you held against Mr Cachia Caruana?

That is the impression that some people are trying to give. It is incorrect.

But does it worry you that many believe that impression?

I’m sleeping soundly, so no. What I said in my speech in Parliament last week I have repeated ad nauseam during a number of parliamentary group meetings and to the Prime Minister.

You never told the Prime Minister you held Mr CachiaCaruana responsible for Malta’s re-entry into PfP behind Parliament’s back.

I have made it clear that Mr Cachia Caruana treats democratically elected representatives of the people with a sense of utter disdain.

Don’t you feel that by keeping your cards close to your chest and making that surprise announcement caused unnecessary embarrassment to the Prime Minister who had just lost another vote some weeks ago?

Quite the opposite. I did not indulge in amateur dramatics before the vote. Instead I assured the Prime Minister I’ll support him till the end of this legislature.

I did not in any way intend causing any harm to my party or to my country. Now if Mr Cachia Caruana equates himself to my country and party, I beg to differ. I’ve nothing else to say on this.

You could have told the Prime Minister, even on the day.

I have nothing else to add. I’m pretty sure I’ve answered all your questions.

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