A new police commissioner - Denis Tanti
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A new police commissioner - Denis Tanti

Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar.

Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar.

The quality of governance in Malta has steadily regressed these past few years. Expert assessments and opinion surveys by various European and international organisations have indicated a steady rise in levels of corruption within Malta’s political scene. 

Conversely, the level of trust of the Maltese public in the police force has plunged down and is much lower than the EU average according to Eurobarometer surveys. 

According to an opinion survey published by InterNations through the Expat Insider 2018 report, even many expatriates residing in Malta have said they have to struggle with the country’s political situation that is increasingly affecting them. The opinion has been expressed that corruption in Malta is horrendous in every aspect of governance. 

The country has emerged as the biggest loser in the report’s Quality of Life Index, where it dropped 19 ranks from 19th to 38th place. 

This highly deplorable situation is the direct result of the culture of impunity for corruption, as opposed to a culture respectful of the rule of law, that has flourished and threatened the country’s democracy since Labour came to power six years ago. The public is quite rightly worried about the lack of political will to end this cycle of impunity. 

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has managed to maintain a strong grip on the police force by placing persons loyal to him at its helm, who on their part have shown a reluctance to investigate and prosecute in cases of suspected corrupt conduct involving certain high echelons of his government.

Muscat has taken advantage of Malta’s archaic Constitution that confers upon him the power to handpick persons of his choice to fill this top position in the police force. On assuming office, he immediately removed the incumbent police commissioner John Rizzo from office after 12 years of impeccable service, and replaced him with retired police superintendent Peter Paul Zammit who just a few days before had signed all the sworn declarations of expenses made by the Labour Party candidates who contested the election.

Zammit found himself at the centre of a scandal after a year in office when it was revealed that he interfered with police investigations and ordered the withdrawal of charges against a former client of his who allegedly assaulted four police officers. 

Zammit resigned but no disciplinary or criminal charges were instituted against him despite prima facie evidence that he interfered with the course of justice and failed to execute his duties in an impartial manner without fear or favour, affection or ill will. Instead, quite ironically, he was rewarded by being appointed in a position of trust as Head of Security for International Events within the Office of the Prime Minister that carried the same salary he received as police commissioner.

Raymond Zammit replaced Peter Paul Zammit in July 2014. However, after only five months as acting police commissioner he was dismissed for attempting to cover up for a shooting incident by Minister Manuel Mallia’s driver Paul Sheehan. 

The Prime Minister played down the seriousness of the case by attributing mere negligence to Zammit as opposed to wilful misconduct. Just as in the case of his predecessor he was rewarded by an equally well-paid position of trust as chairman of the Local Enforcement System Agency Advisory Board, while retaining the right to be chauffeur-driven. 

The duties of police commissioner were taken over by Michael Cassar in December 2014. He remained in office until April 2016 when he resigned citing health reasons, after he was presented with the results of an investigation carried out by the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit about secret offshore dealings of Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi. Thus, he could avoid having to order police investigations into the case.   

Muscat lost no time in filling the vacated top position in the police force with Lawrence Cutajar, a staunch admirer of his. 

The choice of police commissioner should not be left in the hands of the Prime Minister. As vetting committee can be appointed bythe President

Under Cutajar’s headship the police force consistently abdicated from its responsibility of investigating certain FIAU reports, including one that found a reasonable suspicion that €100,000 coming from bribery from the sale of Maltese passports were transferred from a British Virgin Islands offshore bank account belonging to the Prime Minister’s financial consultant Brian Tonna to a Pilatus Bank account belonging to Schembri.

Cutajar astounded the whole nation on April 20, 2017, when he went to Mġarr with his friends to eat rabbit without issuing orders to the police to conduct investigations at the offices of Pilatus Bank, after a public allegation had been made earlier that day by investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia that more than $1 million were transferred from an account held by the said bank to a bank account in Dubai.

Members of the police Economic Crimes Unit only visited the bank the following day, giving time for the removal of important evidence. Under Cutajar’s watch, the police said they found no evidence of criminal behaviour to arraign Labour Party executive member Neville Gafà in court, after he was publicly accused of using his position of trust at the Office of the Prime Minister to solicit money from Libyan nationals. 

According to court evidence given by Alleanza Bidla’s leader Ivan Grech Mintoff, Gafà visited Libya recently where he offered money to Libyan nationals in return for accepting not to testifying against him in court in connection with this case.

The police also allowed a year-and-a -half to elapse before arraigning in court Education Minister Evarist Bartolo’s ex-driver and canvasser, Edward Caruana, after evidence had surfaced against him of kickbacks. At the same time, no freezing order was issued against him. Instead, he was allowed to suspend himself on a full salary and left unhindered building his block of apartments.

In another case, the police failed to press charges against former Labour Party secretary general Jimmy Magro following a report issued two years ago by the Commission Against Corruption, where it expressed its moral conviction that in 2014, when he occupied the position of adviser to the Local Councils Association, he requested €25,000 in kickbacks to secure a procurement contract by the association to a particular bidder during a public tenders adjudication.

The police justified its position on the pretext that it was still investigating and required stronger evidence. In the meantime, Magro was refunded the sum of €9,000 deducted during a period when he was suspended on half pay and allowed to retire with a €50,000 loyalty bonus before completing his term of contract.

Cutajar’s lack of competence continued to come out by his amateurish performance in a crime conference covered by both local and international press, on the brutal assassination of Caruana Galizia. Apart from allowing three days to elapse before calling the conference, he demonstrated poor public relations and practically failed to answer any question fielded.

Given his natural shrewdness, Muscat has for obvious reasons reiterated his trust in Cutajar. However, a few months back the local media has hinted to the possibility of the sixth police commissioner in a row since Labour swept to power. 

The right man for the job needs to be found, who can put the police force back on its feet and give it back the public’s respect it deserves. Such a person should be able to lead by example and execute his duties with integrity and honesty free of any political influence. 

To achieve this goal the choice of police commissioner should not be left in the hands of the Prime Minister. As an alternative, a vetting committee can be appointed by the President that would include the current chief justice and emeritus chief justices. The candidates’ past performance in the form of decisions made and actions taken should be scrutinised by the committee, and the name of the proposed candidate would then be presented to Parliament for a final decision by a two-thirds majority vote. 

Would this be too much to ask?

Denis Tanti is a former assistant director (industrial and employment relations) in the Ministry for Health.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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