The Labour Party is currently on the offensive against Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi for failing to file his 2018 and 2019 tax returns on time.
They’re right. Azzopardi’s actions are unacceptable, especially considering the political profile he has built around good governance. Explaining this away as the result of his marital separation does not quite cut it and it certainly does not explain why the 2020 returns fail to mention the income earned from his profession.
But there’s a sinister story behind how these late tax returns were exposed and it is also worth highlighting because it points towards potential collusion involving the office of Speaker Anglu Farrugia, Prime Minister Robert Abela and Labour’s media company One Productions, which ironically hasn’t filed its own accounts in more than 10 years.
Back in January, The Shift News filed a request with the Speaker to obtain a copy of the tax returns of all MPs.
This request was denied on the grounds that The Shift News is not officially registered with the Department of Information and therefore is not legally empowered to demand these returns.
As a show of solidarity with The Shift News, Lovin Malta immediately filed its own request for these tax returns, given that it is registered with the DOI.
Lovin Malta’s request was filed on January 10th.
It took almost two months for the Speaker’s office to send these returns to Lovin Malta, which finally began arriving on March 3rd at 7.52pm.
But two things happened in the 24 hours before they arrived.
First, One News filed its own request to get copies of the tax returns, which they received three hours before Lovin Malta.
And secondly, even before One News received the returns, Prime Minister Robert Abela informed the press that in the coming hours a big story about Azzopardi would hit the headlines and all Malta would know that he is “the most hypocritical politician in the country”.
According to the Speaker’s official records, One News filed its requests for tax returns on March 2nd and received them on March 3rd at 4.44pm, which is after the Prime Minister fired his warning shot and before Lovin Malta received the returns.
The timeline points towards somebody in the Speaker’s Office informing someone in the government or the Labour Party that Azzopardi’s returns were missing, prompting One News to file the request for tax returns which Lovin Malta had made two months earlier.
Lovin Malta has sent questions to the Speaker’s office and to Speaker Anglu Farrugia to explain this turn of events and whether someone from the Speaker’s office leaked the story to One News.
Farrugia, who recently came under fire for voting with government MPs to reject a report by the Standards Commissioner about former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, replied to Lovin Malta in brief: “Sorry, I don’t agree with you, it’s not the case.”
Clerk of the House Ray Scicluna then submitted a longer reply as follows:
“Lovin Malta’s request was for all the Members of the House and the information provided included both sitting Members and those who for some reason or other today are not Members of Parliament; 76 Members in all. The request from One was submitted on 2nd March and required details for just 6 Members. You may also wish to note that before providing the information, Mr Speaker is obliged to first inform and send to each Member individually copies of the requests submitted by the Media and the information to be disclosed. The requested details were sent to One on 3rd March at 4.44pm. The first batch of details were sent to Lovin Malta that same day at 7.51pm soon after that day’s sitting adjourned. Our intention was that of providing Lovin Malta with the first batch of files also during the Sitting but due to parliamentary work and due to the larger number of files involved, the sending of the files commenced approximately 3 hours later. I regret not being able to have replied to Lovin Malta’s request earlier.”
His response confirms that the returns were submitted to One before Lovin Malta and after Abela made his statement to the press warning of a major story coming out against Azzopardi.
The Prime Minister denies collusion with the Speaker but has provided no further explanation.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party has gone on overdrive to admonish Azzopardi.
Jason Micallef, the chairman of One Productions, filed a complaint with the Standards Commissioner to investigate Azzopardi. Ironically, One Productions has failed to submit its audited accounts to the competent authorities for more than 10 years.
The Labour Party itself has yet to submit its own 2019 audited accounts to the Electoral Commissioner and has been using the pandemic as an excuse to delay. The Nationalist Party had also delayed filing its accounts but did so in recent weeks, even though it has yet to file the accounts of its media company Medialink which have been pending for more than 17 years.
There are also claims that Azzopardi knew this story was going to be revealed and tried to preempt it by planting another story, that Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar had a tax official arrested to force him to resign from his post – a claim Cutajar has denied.
Azzopardi has defended his own late returns and responded to the claims of timing the Cutajar story in this way:
“I always filed my tax returns in time, every year of my working life, except for the last two years for the simple reason that due to my personal separation process and legal problems that are part of this process, it was not possible for me to file the returns in time. As you can confirm with the Tax Commissioner, it is NORMAL in all personal separations for there to be late filing of returns.
I inform you that last January (and I invite you to confirm this with Tax Commissioner Marvin Gaerty) I went personally to file the returns for 2018 and 2019. The Tax Department has been since then processing them to create separate accounts, as happens in these cases. Gaerty informed the Clerk of the House about this who in turn informed One News but they obviously did not mention this.
It is not true, as is being alleged, that I took an oath this week to reveal the frame up in which Mario Cutajar and Robert Abela after I got to know about One News’ request fo the tax returns for the simple reason that I had been scheduled to speak for more than a week, and this can be confirmed with PN’s whip Robert Cutajar.
It is deplorable that One News is taking advantage of a personal problem I had and that thousands of Maltese have to try and undermine me.
I cannot but note that One released this story to deviate from the fiasco of a press conference by Robert Abela where he angered the Maltese public with his arrogance and insensitivity.”
This is not the first time Azzopardi’s record was tarnished. Last November he was found to have breached the parliamentary code of ethics by failing to declare a 2017 Tel Aviv hotel stay paid for by the Tumas Group. The company’s former director is Yorgen Fenech who allegedly commissioned the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose family is represented in court by Azzopardi himself.
And Azzopardi is not the first PN exponent to have troubles filing his tax returns, with PN leader Bernard Grech and former leader Adrian Delia both having to resolve similar issues with the tax department.
It seems Malta’s politicians have an endemic problem with reporting their financial matters accurately yet they feel very comfortable admonishing each other for such failures.
Meanwhile, Malta remains under the close scrutiny of Moneyval and FATF as the threat of greylisting looms due to our difficulties with tackling financial crime. Our politicians, political parties and their media companies don’t seem to be leading by example.
What do you make of this story?