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A study in evasiveness

Who owns 17 Black?

It is the question that has been haunting Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri. When our reporters approached them separately with it and repeated it several times, all they did was shrink away to the size of the moral dwarves that they are. Never has silence been more pregnant with meaning.

It bears repeating why the question is important. 17 Black is a Dubai-based company that, according to an e-mail revealed by the Daphne Project, was lined up to pay hundreds of thousands of euros a year into Mizzi and Schembri’s separate Panama accounts.

 Who would have an interest in doing that? The question gains all the more pertinence given 17 Black had received large payments from the local agent of the tanker supplying gas to the power station as well as from an Azeri national.

Equally evasive were the studied non-replies given to our journalist by Foreign Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela, after this newspaper revealed last Sunday that he had used workers from his former ministry to build a gazebo-type structure on the roof of his house. Admittedly, the amounts that may be involved here are pitiful compared to the 17 Black scenario, but are still a resigning matter. The fact that this was not even considered says much about the depths to which political accountability has dived.

Then there is the case of Economy Minister Chris Cardona. He has spent nearly half a million euros on more than 100 trips abroad, often alone, since his government was elected to office in 2013. Doubtless taxpayers had their mind at rest that every cent was spent in service to the country and that any notion of self-indulgence was as far from the minister’s mind as Acapulco.

However, the Auditor General wanted to be sure. It turned out the minister could not back up certain expenditure on a small sample taken of his missions. For example, a €2,000 claim on his hotel bill in Monaco, on which he had already splashed out €8,000 over the Grand Prix weekend, could not be justified.

Our journalists have not yet had the opportunity to challenge Mr Cardona face to face. Questions sent by e-mail have remained unanswered. And the Prime Minister has refused to say whether he approved all the trips, as he is obliged to do under the rules.

The way these cowardly representatives of the people scurry into their holes to avoid the searching light of questioning is matched only by the Prime Minister’s monumental hypocrisy in turning a blind eye to continued and repeated evidence of malfeasance. It was the Parliamentary Ombudsman, no less, who last week made a pointed reference to Labour’s election manifesto promising more work to strengthen transparency and governance.

Ombudsman Anthony C. Mifsud, in his annual report for 2017, was scathing: “When the thin dividing line between administering public affairs in the interest of the common good and satisfying personal, sectoral or partisan interests becomes increasingly blurred, a window of opportunity is created that allows clientelism, political patronage, opportunism, abuse and eventually corruption to fester.” Like the former Chief Justice before him, who sounded a shrill warning about the erosion of the rule of law, Mr Mifsud’s admonition, as a trusted standard bearer of morality in public administration, must be taken seriously.

In a court of law one is innocent until proven guilty. In the court of politics, faced with strong evidence that indicates misconduct, one is guilty until proven innocent. The onus is on the official in question to prove that his behaviour is above reproach and not on his accusers to ‘prove’ wrongdoing.

The people, whoever they voted for, have a right to a government they can trust to administer the country’s assets honestly on their behalf and to be above suspicion of personal enrichment at their expense. The majority voted for economic well-being and not for brazen impunity.

Lack of transparency and accountability, corruption and abuse of power were not on Labour’s manifesto.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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