Min jitwieled tond, ma jmutx kwadru

Uħud ma kienux qed jistennew li Malta tiżdied fuq il-lista l-griża tal-Financial Action Task Force (FATF).  Il-kitba, iżda, ilha fuq il-ħajt għal bosta żmien. Sfortunatament il-linġwaġġ tal-governanza tajba ma jinftiehemx minn kulħadd. B’mod partikolari, min l-unika valur li jifhem fih hu dak tal-flus, ftit li xejn ser jifhem u jagħti kaz.  

Uħud donnhom jgħixu kontinwament fid-dellijiet. Donnhom jippreferu li jinsatru fid-dell tal-kważi anonimità. It-taħwid f’dan it-tip ta’ ambjent hu ferm iktar faċli.

Skond rapporti fil-media, l-awditur intern tal-Awtorità tal-Artijiet,  Charlene Muscat, qed tingħata l-ġemb u ġiet miżmuma milli taqdi r-responsibbiltajiet tagħha. Qed jingħad li dan ilu jseħħ numru ta’ xhur.  Wara li ħejjiet rapport kritiku dwar ħidmet l-Awtorità tal-Artijiet issa ser tispiċċa trasferita x’imkien ieħor fis-servizz pubbliku.  

Charlene Muscat, li kienet ġurnalista mal-One kif ukoll hi ex-Sindku Laburista tal-Imqabba kienet impjegata biex tiffaċilita l-governanza tajba fl-Awtorità tal-Artijiet u dan billi tagħmel il-verifiki interni ta’ ħidmet l-awtorità.  Ġiet miżmuma milli tagħmel xogħolha billi, fost oħrajn ma tħallietx tattendi laqgħat tal-Bord u nżammilha aċċess għall-files meħtieġa biex tagħmel xogħolha. Fi ftit kliem xi ħadd iddeċieda li xogħol l-awditur intern ma kienx iktar meħtieġ. Nifhem dan xi jfisser għax dan għaddejt minnu jiena ukoll f’ċirkustanzi oħra xi żmien ilu.

Dan hu eżempju ieħor ta’ Gvern li jgħid ħaġa u jagħmel oħra: jikkuntrasta ma dak kollu li ntqal dwar il-posizzjoni ta’ Malta fuq il-lista l-griża tal-FATF. Il-Prim Ministru Robert Abela ilu jxerred id-dmugħ tal-kukkudrilli dwar kemm Malta ġiet ittrattata ħażin meta tqegħdet fuq din il-lista l-griża, għax ma ħaqqiex hekk. Imbagħad, fl-istess ħin il-Gvern tiegħu stess jirresisti proċessi ta’ verifika trasparenti, tant essenzjali biex tkun assigurata governanza tajba.  Mingħajr  governanza tajba, trasparenza u kontabilità, ftit hemm ċans li neħilsu minn posizzjoni fuq il-lista l-griża!

L-Awtorità tal-Artijiet twaqqfet ftit wara li tfaċċa l-iskandlu Gaffarena, bħala rimedju għat-taħwid li kien tfaċċa dakinnhar. Għad hemm lok għal bosta spjegazzjonijiet anke dwar dan, għax il-ħolqien tal-Awtorità jidher li ma solviet xejn, għax min jitwieled tond, ma jmutx kwadru.

Dak li kien CEO tal-Awtorità tal-Artijiet, James Piscopo, kien warrab mill-kariga tiegħu ftit inqas minn sena ilu. Il-kuntratt tiegħu ma kienx ġie mġedded, u dan meta bdew jissemmew numru ta’ allegazzjonijiet serji fil-konfront tiegħu.  Kien intqal li t-taqsima tar-reati ekonomiċi fil-korp tal-Pulizija kienet qed tinvestiga numru ta’ transazzjonijiet offshore. Investigazzjoni kumplessa li jekk u meta tkun konkluża setgħet possibilment titfa’ dawl fuq  bosta ħwejjeġ. Dak li kien skrivan mal-Air Malta għad hemm bosta ħwejjeġ x’jispjega!

Iil-qarrejja bla dubju jiftakru x’għadda bejn is-sidien tal-Lukanda Fortina u l-Awtorità tal-Artijiet. Kif art pubblika li oriġinalment ngħatat b’kundizzjonijiet favorevoli għat-turiżmu spiċċat tiġi sviluppata b’mod spekulattiv għal ufiċċini u appartamenti. Żvilupp li qed iwassal għal qliegħ ta’ miljuni, a spejjes tal-kaxxa ta’ Malta. S’issa għad mhux ċar kif dan seħħ u min kien responsabbli biex ippermettieħ. L-Awtorità tal-Artijiet għad trid tispjega x’ġara eżattament.

Fid-dell, kważi mistura, hemm numru ta’ interessi kummerċjali marbutin flimkien. Interessi li nifhem li bdew ifeġġu fuq l-iskrijn tal-komputer ta’ dik li kienet l-awditur intern tal-Awtorità tal-Artijiet. L-ispjegazzjonijiet iżda qatt ma ngħataw.

Meta nħolqot l-Awtorità tal-Artijiet, flok dak li kien id-Dipartiment tal-Artijiet, kien intqal b’ħafna pompa li ser tiddaħħal iktar serjetà fl-amministrazzjoni tal-art pubblika. Ma kienx ser ikollna iktar “King tal-Lands”, għax kollox kien ser jgħaddi f’idejn ir-Repubblika!  Fir-rapporti annwali tal-Awtorità tal-Artijiet hu emfasizzat li din hi mibnija fuq prinċipji sodi: fuq sens ta’ ġustizzja, kontabilità u trasparenza. Probabbilment li dik li kienet awditur intern ma taqbel xejn ma dan!  

ippubblikat fuq Illum: il-Ħadd 4 ta’ Lulju 2021

Old habits die hard

Malta’s grey-listing by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) may have caught some on the wrong foot.  The writing, however, has been on the wall for some time. The language of good governance does not have any meaning or significance to those who appreciate values only within the context of the skills required to handle a bank account.

Unfortunately, lurking in shadowy grey areas has been a favourite past-time for some, where they consider themselves as being quite at home.

According to reports in the media, the Internal Auditor at the Lands Authority, Charlene Muscat, has been side-lined, prevented from carrying out her duties and responsibilities for a number of months. She is now being redeployed elsewhere in the civil service. This follows her critical report on the Lands Authority.

Charlene Muscat, a former One TV reporter and former Labour Mayor of Mqabba was employed in order to ensure that proper internal checks and balances are in place thereby facilitating good governance at the Lands Authority. She has been obstructed from doing her work properly by being prevented from attending board meetings, and from having access to files. In a few words, someone, somewhere made sure that the Internal Auditor is rendered useless and ineffective. I have a personal understanding of what this means and feels, having been through it myself elsewhere.

This is another example of the double-talk of government and comes hot on the heels of the FATF grey listing. The Prime Minister Robert Abela whines and whinges about Malta’s grey-listing by the FATF, shedding many crocodile tears in the process. However, at the same time, his own government actively resists the implementation of transparent internal auditing processes, a basic prerequisite for good governance. Without good governance, transparency and accountability we will never get rid of grey-listing.

Set up in the wake of the Gaffarena scandal, the Lands Authority has quite a lot of pending explanations, as apparently, old habits die hard!

Former Lands Authority Chief Executive James Piscopo stepped down from his role less than a year ago after his contract was not renewed in the wake of a number of serious allegations in his regard.  The economic crimes unit is apparently still investigating a number of offshore transactions of the former Air Malta purchasing clerk: a complex investigation which, once concluded, could possibly join a lot of dots, as a result placing more grey areas under the spotlight.

Readers may remember the dealings of the Fortina Hotel owners with the Lands Authority as a result of which public land made available to the Fortina developers in the past for tourism purposes is currently being redeveloped partly as offices and apartments. It is not so far clear as to who and how made it possible for subsidised public land to be available for speculation. A very grey area which the Lands Authority has a duty to be very transparent about.

In the grey shadows there are a number of interlocking commercial interests which I presume time and again appear on the computer screens of the Lands Authority internal auditor. Explanations have not been forthcoming yet.

When the Lands Authority was created, rising from the ashes of the former Lands Department, it was depicted as the long-awaited solution to the opaque internal secretive dealings involving land in public ownership. The Lands Authority would no longer have a king. Now it ought to be part of the republic! Its annual reports emphasise that it has a corporate philosophy grounded in the values of fairness, accountability and transparency. Really? The (former) internal auditor is definitely not convinced about that!

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 4 July 2021

Village size embassies: are they required?

The US embassy was built some 9 years ago on a large tract of land at Ta’ Qali purchased from the Maltese Government for €14.6 million. The footprint of the Ta’ Qali Embassy is slightly over 4 hectares in size.

Earlier this week a development permit for a new Chinese Embassy at Pembroke, covering an area of around 2 hectares, was approved by the Planning Authority. The Chinese Embassy compound will be half the size of the US embassy complex but it still has quite a substantial footprint. The land to be developed as a Chinese Embassy was purchased from the Maltese Government for €7,880,000.

Why have these foreign governments been permitted to develop their embassies on such large tracts of land? If they really need space, would it not have been much more helpful if they were advised to restore some old, possibly historic building, as a result giving back something to Maltese society?

How long will it take before some other request for the development of another enormous embassy complex is made? From the Russian Federation maybe?

Does the debate on the American University in Malta not ring a bell? Have we not learnt anything from that public debate as a result of which the only functioning campus is at the former Malta Drydocks? The historic properties on that site, namely the seventeenth century Knights’ Building and the nineteenth century British naval workshops have been restored and given a new use. This has resulted in a net environmental gain, in the process protecting land at Marsaskala from development: a portion of our countryside was saved from ruin.

We will never have an honest reply to the basic question as to what all this space in the village size embassies is needed for. In addition to basic consular work and the development of relations with the business and local community these village size embassies are also inevitably an eavesdropping focus for intelligence gathering in the Mediterranean region.

Some tend to describe both the United States and the Republic of China as being very good friends of Malta. In reality it is a well-established foreign policy principle that countries do not have friends: they have interests. Diplomatic relations serve to further these interests.

Malta’s central location in the Mediterranean makes it ideal as a monitoring post and that is undoubtedly one of the basic interests for such large embassies. Ensuring that this interest is well catered for in Malta is a priority for both the United States of America and the Republic of China.

The recent debate on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) relative to US Forces is indicative. Only the naïve would have failed to note the unofficial comments flying around in order to understand what was going on around the negotiating tables.

In larger countries it may make sense to have large embassies. However, in Malta we could definitely do without them. In a small country such as ours, they are definitely not required to improve the relations with the United States, China or any other country.

The Embassy of the United States of America has now been built and it has been operational for the past nine years. The Chinese embassy is however still on plan. Even if it has just been approved the Chinese Ambassador could still give the matter some further thought and consider the possible rehabilitation of some old building or buildings, possibly historical ones, instead of his massive embassy, the size of a small village!

Possibly that could turn the problem of the location and land uptake of the proposed embassy on its head and develop it into a unique opportunity.

It is never too late Mr Ambassador to take note.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 1 November 2020