Isn’t it strange that in a country so riddled with corruption it has taken this long for someone to stand up and actually expose an attempted bribe?
I’m not surprised that my friend and fellow journalist Ivan Martin refused to take the €500 notes offered to him by Yorgen Fenech’s lawyers. I wouldn’t even call it commendable, because he did what he was meant to do. Anything less would have been outrageous, and a huge disservice to himself, his profession and his employer.
However, the decision taken by Martin and his newspaper to expose the ridiculous offer by Gianluca Caruana Curran so publicly is not only one that should be celebrated. It should also inspire everyone else to take the cue. In fact, the onus is now on us to make sure it triggers Malta’s version of the Me Too movement, where other people come forward with their own experiences.
Because for a man like Gianluca Caruana Curran to even attempt something like this, Malta’s bribery culture must be far more widespread than we choose to believe. And rather than downplay it, we should wage a serious war against it, in defence of the rule of law, the free market and our rights to a fair judicial system.
Our country, freedom and economy depend on people like Martin who refuse to just sit at the back of the bus and allow an insidious culture to fester and dominate.
Let us for a second remember who Caruana Curran is, besides being the lawyer of millionaire businessman Yorgen Fenech accused of the most significant murder our country has ever seen, that of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
He comes from a family that is not only a political institution but holds serious influence across major sectors: politics, law, media, business and sport. Gianluca is the son of Giannella de Marco, one of Malta’s most respected criminal lawyers, who also happens to be married to the country’s tenacious Commissioner of Standards George Hyzler, and is also the daughter of the late Guido Demarco – a highly revered former President of Malta.
And Gianluca’s uncle is Mario de Marco, one of the most dignified members of the Nationalist Party who also happens to be one of five council members on the board of the Strickland Foundation, which owns Times of Malta.
Knowing all of this, it is absolutely flabbergasting that Gianluca would even remotely attempt to bribe one of Times of Malta’s most prominent journalists.
But he didn’t only attempt to do it. According to Martin’s account – which in many ways was confirmed by Gianluca Caruana Curran himself – the lawyer placed several €500 bank notes into the journalist’s hands. (Those notes themselves should spark serious concerns because they were meant to be phased out to fight money laundering.)
And before you assume that this journalist bribe was just a silly mistake by a naive lawyer that is being blown out of proportion, keep in mind that Malta has a history of high profile bribery cases, including two judges in 2007 and another in 2012.
Why should we believe that lawyers and other parties do not regularly attempt to bribe judges, magistrates, police investigators, prison officials, Attorney General officials and politicians who may have an impact on their client’s cases.
Gianluca Caruana Curran acted with complete and utter shamelessness, impunity and disregard for the law or his family reputation. He acted as if this was a completely normal, if not expected, thing to do. Not to mention that he did all this in the presence of Charles Mercieca, a former official of the Attorney General’s office and the son of a respected ophthalmologist and former MP Franco Mercieca. (Let’s not forget that Mercieca also fancied himself as being worthy of appointment within the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.)
The behaviour of Caruana Curran and his co-counsel makes you wonder how many other people they were prepared to sacrifice their careers to bribe. And it makes you wonder whether they had strict instructions to do this by their client.
But we shouldn’t be wondering at all because this seems to have been Yorgen Fenech’s modus operandi all along.
Just last week we learnt how Fenech paid for a big Las Vegas trip for Joe Cuschieri, the CEO of Malta’s Financial Services Authority, and his consort, a board member on the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit. This, while Cuschieri was meant to be testifying in a case against Fenech, not to mention his role as watchdog of Fenech’s companies, both as MFSA CEO and, until just a few days earlier, in his former role as CEO of Malta’s Gaming Authority.
And what about police inspector Silvio Valletta (who was at the time married to Labour minister Justyne Caruana)? He too was bribed with lavish trips and gifts by Yorgen Fenech while Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder was being investigated.
Unlike Ivan Martin and his newspaper, these men – Cuschieri, Valletta and Muscat – readily accepted the gifts they were offered by Yorgen Fenech.
Each of them were arguably bound to do the opposite – to report such advances as potential crimes. But they didn’t. They accepted these gifts and then hid them from the public, even downplaying them when they were finally exposed.
Now, finally, Malta has a well-publicized example of someone who did the right thing – a poorly-paid journalist, it must be pointed out, lest we start to justify bribery by citing poor salaries.
And it seems we’re already seeing a domino effect here. Just yesterday we learnt that even Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi – who has been so instrumental in seeking justice and truth on the Caruana Galizia case – himself thought it normal to call a big hotelier (Yorgen Fenech’s uncle Ray) to ask him for a hotel recommendation in Tel Aviv, only to then realise on checkout that the bill was settled. And instead of paying back in full and asking for it not to happen again, Azzopardi bought Fenech a gift to thank him.
This case is another example of just how pervasively this culture of gifts and bribes has permeated into our political system.
It also shows we need to strengthen our rules on these matters.
The Office of the Standards Commissioner recently issued calls for a proper updated rule book for Cabinet members, former Cabinet members and members of Parliament. But government and Parliament must act on these recommendations without hesitation – not leave them on the shelf.
If we are ever to recover from the mire that has become our political system and national reputation, we need to tighten our rules, enforce them and make sure more people do what Ivan Martin did when they are at the receiving end of bribes or trading in influence.
Perhaps this culture of bribery would explain why so few high profile cases result in convictions.
Just think of how easily the John Dalli affair disappeared after being one of the biggest scandals to rock the EU Commission. Just think of the Egrant investigation that failed to even remotely explain who owned the Panama company after an investigation that cost taxpayers millions.
And what about the various tower permits given to favoured business people like Yorgen Fenech himself, the Gasans, Joe Portelli, Silvio Debono and many others? How can we be expected to believe they are all legitimate deals?
To do that we need our faith restored in our institutions, which means we not only need justice to be done, we need it to be seen to be done. This is in the interest of all good-faith actors who should not all be tarred with the same brush.
However, so far, all we are seeing is case after case of bad judgment and bribery – and very few of these resulting in serious action being taken.
It is only when there is a dominant culture of bribery that people get so sloppy with it the way Caruana Curran did with Martin.
And it is only when we create a dominant culture of exposing such bribes, legislating against them and taking serious action when people are caught that bad actors will start to think twice about offering them.
So share this article as widely as possible and talk about your disgust of bribery. If you are ever a witness to such behaviour, report it and expose it.
You have nothing to be afraid of. It’s those who are committing the bribes who should be afraid. The country is coming for them, partly because we’re already starting to feel the economic impacts of such behaviour.
It’s time for zero tolerance when it comes to corruption, bribery and the perversion of Maltese justice.
Otherwise, what’s next? Bribing Moneyval?