Stephen Kohn is one of the most eminent whistleblower lawyers in the United States, perhaps best known for having successfully defended Linda Tripp when she blew the whistle on the famous Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal. Kohn’s interest has now turned to Malta and has personally urged Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body GRECO to protect a whistleblower who has alleged severe shortcomings at the Malta Gaming Authority.
“Without strong oversight from GRECO, whistleblower laws in Europe will never be effective,” Kohn, executive director of the USA’s National Whistleblower Centre, said. “GRECO must act to ensure that whistleblowers such as Valery Atanasov are not subjected to any retaliation, and that the Civil Law on Corruption is not toothless.”
Atanasov, a Bulgarian national, worked as an IT administrator at the Malta Gaming Authority between 2008 and 2015, and has claimed he was fired because he had flagged a lack of enforcement at the national gaming authority.
One of Atanasov’s jobs was to ‘seal’ the computer servers of gaming operators, a process that involved physically inspecting servers and sticking certification stickers on them if they are found compliant with MGA regulations. Gaming operators who change their servers are obliged by law to get them re-certified by the MGA beforehand.
However, Atanasov showed three separate internal emails exchanges to Reuters which allegedly showed representatives of three Maltese gaming companies referring to situations breach of the ‘seal’ system. In one case dating back to 2012, Atanasov warned his supervisor that a gaming company’s server hadn’t been sealed since 2008, but this warning fell on deaf ears.
MGA chief executive Joe Cuschieri has dismissed Valery Atanasov’s claims
In other cases alleged by Atanasov, the MGA ignored his warnings that a gaming company was secretly transferring funds to another company and failed to take action when he flagged how a gaming company hadn’t paid its taxes in a year. In another case, Atanasov said a former MGA official found a job high up at a gaming company, after which “several problems arose”.
Atanasov has since been formally disciplined, suspended with a pay cut and then fired. The MGA insists he was fired for incompetence, unjustified sick leave and insubordination and that disciplinary action had been initiated against him back in 2013 for “making false allegations” about the regulator.
MGA chairman Joseph Cuschieri told Reuters there was no link between the practice of sealing and tax compliance and money-laundering.
“The MGA has other mechanisms in place to supervise tax compliance and money-laundering The MGA audits its operators’ information security procedures and processes against an internal manual largely adopted from international technical standards,” he said.
Atanasov has reported the irregularities with the FIAU, the anti-corruption commission and the Ombudsman, and has formally applied for whistleblower status.
American whistleblower NGO gets involved
The National Whistleblower Centre, the USA’s leading NGO for whistleblowers, yesterday emailed Joseph Muscat and GRECO to voice its concerns about the Atanasov case and to formally ask the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body to monitor Malta’s whistleblower legislation.
“According to information provided to the National Whistleblower Center, Mr Atanasov raised concerns about money laundering and was subsequently subjected to severe sanction by his employer,” the NWC wrote. “Money laundering, especially in the context of gambling, raises significant issues concerning corruption, and concerns over money laundering fall within jurisdiction of the Civil Law on Corruption. The facts of this case appear to demonstrate that Mr Atanasov blew the whistle on serious security vulnerabilities in Malta’s online gambling system that could be used to enable money laundering and other crimes. We believe that the facts of this case raise serious questions as to whether or not whistleblowers are being properly protected under Malta’s Protection of the Whistleblower Act.”
“Retaliation against Mr Atanasov and MGA’s suit against him are a threat to Malta’s rule of law and would have a chilling effect ton the willingness of other persons to blow the whistle on any further cases including money laundering.”
The NWC urged Muscat to ensure Atanasov is reinstated into his old job and paid compensation, and to issue a public statement expressing the government’s commitment to protect whistleblowers.
Following this letter, the MGA issued a statement to reiterate that Atanasov was fired due to incompetence, poor performance and abuse dating back to 2011 and that his termination followed a lengthy disciplinary proceeding.
“Mr Atanasov started making allegations of wrongdoing against the Authority at the end of the disciplinary proceedings,” the MGA said. “These were duly investigated by the Authority’s Internal Auditor and no irregularities were discovered. The chronology is indisputable: The Authority did not take any retaliatory action against Mr Atanasov for any alleged whistleblower action. Mr Atanasov made allegations about the Authority after he was subjected to disciplinary proceedings. When Mr Atanasov started making serious and false allegations about the Authority (in May 2017), following his termination of employment, the Authority filed judicial proceedings in order to protect its reputation.”