The toothless commissioner – Arnold Cassola

In 2013, the addition of an article to the Criminal Code stating that politicians and others involved in political corruption would no longer be able to invoke prescription if they ended up in court accused of corruption was announced with much fanfare by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Parliamentary Secretary for Justice Owen Bonnici.

Article 115 (2) of the Criminal Code states that “(2) Notwithstanding any other provision of this Code or of any other law, when the offence against the provisions of this article is committed by a person who, at the time when the offence was committed, held the office of Minister, Parliamentary Secretary, Member of the House of Representatives, Mayor or Local Councillor and the offence involved the abuse of such office, the provisions of Title VI of Part III of Book Second of this Code shall not apply”.

The scope of this article was: “To remove the applicability of prescription to the offence of corruption when committed by persons elected to political office, and to further implement the provisions of the Criminal Law Convention on Corruption of the Council of Europe.”

Basically, therefore, the provisions of the Bill apply not only to MPs but also to other elected officials such as mayors and local councillors and all those who attempt to corrupt politicians or are in any way involved in political corruption.  

Four years later, in 2017, Parliament voted in a new Act on Standards in Public Life. This Act also allowed for the setting up of the office of a Commissioner for Standards in Public Life who, like the Auditor General and the Ombudsman, can only be appointed with the approval of two-thirds of the Members of Parliament. 

Despite the fact that the Panama Papers volcano had already erupted and that therefore the Commissioner for Standards would already have ample material to work on, it seems that the members of the Maltese Parliament were not in a real hurry to get this office working as it should. It took them another year and a half to agree upon the name of a Commissioner, George Hyzler, who effectively took up office at the end of October this year.

By this time, various conflicts of interest or unethical behaviour involving elected Maltese politicians had come to the surface of our supposedly ‘pure’ and ‘untainted’ Maltese political world: Konrad Mizzi had not only opened his ‘secret’ company in Panama but he had also tried to open – through his accountant Karl Cini – an offshore bank account, which, according to e-mailed instructions, was to be “populated” with dollars coming from Yorgen Fenech’s 17 Black account. 

Mario DeMarco was outed as one of the lawyers who had negotiated the scandalous contract giving the DB Group a huge tract of Maltese land at St George’s Bay for peanuts. Clayton Bartolo, instead, had kept mum about his father renting out the Tunny Net quay from the DB Group or about himself holding parties at their premises… and shamelessly just proceeded to vote in favour of the project, without declaring his interest.   

We were all thinking that the Commissioner would get cracking and start working on these cases. Instead, we have just found out that the Law on Standards in Public Life specifies that the Commissioner can take no action or start any investigation on irregularities or suspicion of irregularities committed by MPs before the date of October 30, 2018.

To a layman and legal ignoramus like me, this seems absolutely absurd. On the one hand the Prime Minister boasts about having eliminated prescription, through the amendment to the Civil Code, when the corruption accusations involve elected public officials; on the other, Parliament approves the ‘standards’ law which actually introduces prescription, immunity and impunity for those politicians having acted ‘dirty’ before October 30, 2018.   

Basically, a sly political delinquent like Konrad Mizzi can get away with it all. Very depressing for those who believe in justice.

Yet, there might still be some light at the end of the tunnel. 

Why? Well, the legal minds that I have consulted have pointed out that the fact that the Commissioner cannot take any action with regard to cases that have happened before this legal Act came into force does not preclude him from investigating those cases where the person who allegedly committed the crime was still reaping the fruits of his misdeeds on October 31, 2018.

Considering the very slow pace at which our various institutional investigative bodies proceed, it is difficult to expect results from them in the near future.

It is therefore up to the journalists to bell the cat: can journalists investigate and come up with the proof, if any, that a scoundrel like Mizzi not only misbehaved in the past but has also continued reaping the benefits of his association with Electrogas, Vitals, Nexia and what not even after October 30, 2018? 

Arnold Cassola
Published in The Times of Malta – Sunday 18 November 2018