Tony Abela: I used discretion
Labour’s deputy leader for party affairs TONI ABELA tells Christian Peregin his conscience is clear and his only regret is making so many enemies because of his zeal to stamp out dishonesty.
Explain in detail the case mentioned in this second recording when you found someone preparing drugs for sale in a Labour club.
You have to take this in the context of a discussion I had when I met the committee of Attard.
Was this the same discussion we heard in the first recording?
Yes. One of my roles in the Labour Party is to oversee the 65 committees and political centres. I organised this meeting with the Attard committee to try and solve some endemic issues. There was the famous issue of the supposed break-in....
What about the drugs case?
I told them we had to be serious. I did not want problems. I told them that some time ago we had a problem when, in a particular centre, I had very strong suspicions that something drug-related was going on.
Where did this happen?
I cannot tell you.
Because I won’t tell you. I’m sorry.
The person who approached me to regularise this very embarrassing situation and the committee bound me not to because they were so afraid. These are honest people. One of them came to tell me about the problem. He said: “Ton, please get rid of him, so we can live our lives.”
This was the president?
The president, among others, came to tell me what was happening. Once he was passing by the centre and he saw someone in the kitchen handling a white block.
Was it cocaine?
I don’t know what it was. I never went there. All I know is what he told me.
Exactly. I never saw these things. I did not see this white block or anyone cutting it. I just got an honest report that they were worried that, on one occasion, not every day, they saw someone in the kitchen of this bar cutting...
Did this person work there?
No. He seemed to have been a friend of the barman.
Did you suspect that they were trafficking drugs?
I’m a lawyer, I know what it means. My first interest was the committee made up of honest people and the people who frequented the centre.
So why blame the president of this club?
It’s not him I sacked. Unfortunately, that’s how it was understood in the recording, which is very disjointed.
Whom did you sack?
The one who saw things?
No. The one who we scolded for allowing a person to do these things in the kitchen. He said he didn’t know about it and he was busy serving clients but I told him I didn’t care at all and he should leave immediately.
When was this? In 2009?
The first part of 2010 or late 2009.
But you don’t want to say where?
No, I won’t tell you.
Because of legal issues?
No, because the fear was that these were honest people... I got the president to the PL headquarters and I told him to give me a statement of what he saw. I told him I want this barman removed.
Why take his statement?
So that I would be covered.
In what sense?
I had a person who gave an account of what happened. Because I’ll tell you what happens...
So you can fire the other man?
You had it in writing that this president saw someone cutting a white block...
And I took action. In fact, after he gave me this statement, I summoned the barman and told him to pack up, leave and not come back.
But if the case was so serious that justified sacking the barman why didn’t you inform the police?
I didn’t have to because... You have to be in my position to take these decisions. As the Police Commissioner told me...
You had a written declaration and a founded suspicion of drug trafficking. Why didn’t you tell the police to investigate him?
The members of the committee were terrorised. This is a place where everyone knows everyone else.
Were they afraid of the person involved?
Were you afraid of him too?
Not at all. I don’t fear these things... I was afraid for them. When these members came to me they were almost in tears.
One of the things I pointed out in the recording was that they disposed of everything... They removed all the evidence.
They thanked me for removing him but they hoped things would stop here. They were terrified. Apart from all this, one of the things that dawned on me is that if I made a report... I used my discretion. You may not agree with me but I argued that if I file a report I would get these people in trouble. These, poor things, were...
But isn’t that’s what happens when someone does something wrong and you report it? God forbid we are setting this example just because we’re afraid.
No, but the issue was this. At that moment in time I saw the safety of the people there. I wanted to act fast so this person does not remain there.
Didn’t you have faith that the police would do their work well and protect these people?
The way things happened I was worried I would bring these people in a lot of trouble for being honest and approaching me immediately, when these things had already happened. So I felt I needed to be careful.
Weren’t you covering up a case of drug trafficking?
No, because I never saw the substance. I don’t even know what it was and I stuck to what they told me.
You’re not a normal citizen. You are a lawyer and the deputy leader of the Labour Party. Don’t you think you had the duty, even politically, to report, despite these fears?
My biggest duty was to see that the club is no longer occupied by people who could harm those who visit the centre and also to keep up the good name of the party.
Not that justice should be carried out with these people?
They reported to me and as a lawyer... Let me make it clear, there are two types of people I do not defend: drug traffickers and child abusers. I don’t take on that work because I abhor drugs. When I saw this, I was alarmed because the last thing I wanted was to have a centre where this sort of activity takes place.
The Police Commissioner called you in for questioning yesterday. Why?
I was going out to eat with my wife for Valentine’s Day. As we got to the table and ordered, the Police Commissioner called me and asked me to pass by... It was the first time I heard the recording. I asked him to explain why he wanted to speak after so long. He told me he had felt there was no case but that he went through the Criminal Code and found a section on which he felt he could approach me.
He said I was obliged to provide information when there was an investigation under way. But I said you have to have an investigation first, so it does not apply to me because there was no investigation...
Have you offered your resignation?
No because I don’t have to. I have a clear conscience.
If this reflects badly on the Labour Party, don’t you feel you should?
If it does, I know what decision I must take. I was always known for never doing anything irregular. In politics, my ticket was always fighting dishonesty, not with words but with facts.
In this case, there was a lot of dishonesty: a person taking revenge, a person recording me, a person reporting me because I used to criticise them for their dishonesty and a Prime Minister who had this in his hands but did not release it until now, three years later.
What discussions did you have with Labour leader Joseph Muscat? Is he backing you?
Let me make it clear, Dr Muscat knew nothing about this. I do not burden him with these problems.
But what did he say when the recording surfaced?
Joseph is disappointed. He’s disappointed even because of how things happened.
What did he say to you? Does he want you to stay?
I spoke to him and so far he hasn’t said anything in that sense...
Do you think he’s waiting to see what voters think?
Whatever he does and whatever he decides, I will bow my head to his decision. If Dr Muscat feels things can be done better without me, I will not be ashamed to say so because I do not look at my personal interests, just like I didn’t do in this case.
Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
I think I would be more cautious... There’s one thing I did wrong in this role. I made many enemies because I was too zealous. If I do something, I like to do it properly. I dive in, headfirst.
Is your advice to Dr Muscat and Labour not to make so many enemies?
Joseph is full of energy and his style is different to mine. In my job I’ve learnt that many times you have to be tough with the people around you. You have to take disciplinary actions and you end up having enemies and getting criticised. What is important is that the decisions are taken in good faith, not in your interest.
As a deputy leader of a party that has spent the past five years criticising ministers for not doing things perfectly, aren’t you doing the same thing? Is this the change in direction we are to expect?
The change in direction is to have the courage I had that whenever there were people who were dishonest, I told them to leave. I did this, even with local councils. I removed mayors, including friends of mine. In fact, the joke within the party is that it is better not to be my friend because I will be even stricter with you, just to show how well I am doing things.