Collusion in public procurement
In a genuinely democratic system, when the government refuses to give sensible explanations for alleged irregular practices in the procurement of goods and services financed by taxpayers’ money, there should be an automatic investigation by independent judges with adequately resourced investigative facilities.
The way some goods and services have been procured and certain concessions granted to private entities over the last few years has brought to nothing the government’s commitment to eradicate corruption and collusion between public officials, politicians and private entities. The Panama Papers saga is a revealing backdrop to how certain deals were concluded, in an obscure process that cast aside the principles of accountability and transparency that supposedly protect taxpayers’ interests.
Such obscure deals include the Electrogas contract; the granting of prime sites in St Julian’s to hoteliers and property developers; the granting of valuable coastline land to the American University of Malta; the granting of the contract of services required at St Vincent De Paule Hospital to a private firm; and the granting of a management contract for the management of three public hospitals to Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH).
The background to the conclusion of these deals, which were often handled directly by politicians, has never been satisfactorily explained by the public authorities. It is only through the independent media that alleged irregularities and collusion between public officials and private entities were brought to the public’s attention.
The granting of a hospital management service contract for potentially 99 years to VGH in 2015 continues to be riddled with serious suspicions of corruption that have so far not been adequately investigated. According to the original contract, the government agreed to pay €70 million yearly to VGS to make use of bed space and medical services provided by the company to three public hospitals.
In 2017 the obligations of VGH under this agreement were transferred to Steward Healthcare for €1. It was recently alleged that the supply chain of medical equipment and services to these three hospitals are being manipulated, through collusion with local private companies, to ensure the exclusive provision of certain medicine and medical services to the hospitals. Technoline and Gateway Solutions, the local companies allegedly involved in this saga, deny any wrongdoing.
Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi in Parliament recently gave a detailed timeline of the events that are woven into this complex and obscure saga. He addressed the allegations made in the independent media on how VGH, the original operators under the hospitals’ management agreement, may now be controlling the exclusive supply of medical equipment and services.
Azzopardi called for the establishment of a Special Inquiring Magistrate for cases of alleged corruption through ad-hoc legislation, chosen by the President with the exclusive brief to investigate, fight and prosecute cases of corruption as he or she sees fit.
Health Minister Chris Fearne, while perhaps not involved in the talks between VGH and Steward Healthcare, hides behind the National Audit Office probe of the hospitals deal. Kicking the can to the NAO is simply not good enough because it is insufficiently resourced to do in-depth investigations of corruption, collusion, fraud, trading in influence and wilful bankruptcy.
The judicial system seems to be reticent about ordering investigations when law enforcement authorities fail to do so in politically sensitive cases. This reticence may be due to the lack of clarity at law on the judiciary’s powers. It certainly undermines the division of power between the judiciary, administrative and legislative branches of government that is the basis for ensuring the rule of law protects people’s rights.
People in authority have the ways and means to hide their malignant stratagems to syphon off taxpayers’ money through obscure and arcane schemes with the help of well-paid professionas who could not care less about the common good. This abuse is even easier to commit when the economy is delivering.
A few important people in the very top levels have a tainted reputation that has already cost the country substantial financial damage and tarnished our reputation internationally.
Empowering independent law enforcers to investigate and act with speed in cases of alleged collusion and corruption is the only way to preserve a genuinely democratic system of government.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial