A confidential report on whether public funds should be used to self-promote ministers was leaked from Parliament, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis cried out yesterday.
“This is a clear attack on the institutions and undermines democracy,” the Minister, along with PL MP Glenn Bedingfield, wrote to the Speaker as they said they won’t discuss the report until he finalises an investigation into the “leak”.
Was there even a leak though?
Last October, NGO Repubblika asked Standards Commissioner George Hyzler to investigate a post-budget ad that OPM Minister Carmelo Abela had run on Times of Malta.
Repubblika warned that the ad was mainly composed of slogans, with a photo of Abela taking up half the page, and didn’t provide the public with any essential information.
Abela’s ministry logo at the bottom of the ad indicated that it was paid through public funds, something which Repubblika said amounted to the use of government money to promote an MP’s re-election campaign.
Yesterday, Newsbook reported that Hyzler had concluded his investigation and found that Abela had committed a serious ethics breach. Newsbook didn’t publish any details from the report itself, only stating that Hyzler had submitted his report to Parliament’s Standards Committee for Standards in Public Life.
Zammit Lewis and Bedingfield, who sit on this committee, claimed that this article indicated that Hyzler’s report had been leaked to Newsbook, in breach of the law.
“This is unacceptable, particularly seeing as leakages are taking place repeatedly when they should be passed on to a few people in a confidential manner,” they wrote in a letter to Speaker Anglu Farrugia.
“Journalists have every right to seek information, but the shortcoming is on the part of who was in possession of this report and couldn’t give a toss about the committee’s procedures.”
They called on Farrugia to investigate the “leak” and said they won’t discuss the report in the standing committee until he concludes his investigation.
However, the law states that the Standards Commissioner should only pass on reports to the parliamentary committee if he feels there has been a breach of law or ethics, if he feels there was an abuse of power, of if he thinks further action has been taken.
The committee must then discuss it and decide whether or not to publish it. If the Standards Commissioner feels that the committee’s action wasn’t appropriate enough, he can send a copy to the Speaker to publish it in the House.
Repubblika president Robert Aquilina confirmed with Lovin Malta that Newsbook had got in touch with him to ask about the status of the NGO’s investigation request to Hyzler.
Aquilina responded that Hyzler had informed him that he had submitted his report to the standing committee.
Hyzler’s email, which was sent on 17th March, has been seen by Lovin Malta and reads as follows:
“The Standards Commissioner has submitted his report on this case to Parliament’s Standing Committee for Standards in Public Life for its consideration under article 27 of the Standards in Public Life Act.”
“You are being informed of this in accordance with the procedure established by the Committee and applicable to similar cases. According to the same procedure, it is up to the Committee to decide whether or when to release the report.”
Therefore, the fact that Hyzler passed on his report to the committee indicates in and of itself that the Standards Commissioner found something wrong with Abela’s ad.
Hyzler has since written to the Speaker to insist that the decision on whether and when to publish his reports should be his own and not the committee’s.
He warned that the committee is “hampering” his work and going against the principle of transparency his office was established to uphold.
“It has no basis at law, since this form of censorship certainly was not foreseen by the legislator; and it effectively amounts to the suppression of reports that can be interpreted as an attempt to undermine Parliament in its efforts to raise standards in public life through the setting up of this office,” he said.
Of course, while Repubblika’s complaint zeroed in on Abela, he certainly isn’t the only minister to put out ads in newspapers that basically amount to self-promotion.
Hyzler’s report could therefore spur the government to adopt new regulations on what kinds of ads can be purchased using public funds, similar to how it adopted regulations on social media ad expenditure following a Standards Commissioner investigation that was triggered by Lovin Malta.
Last year, Hyzler found widespread misuse of public funds by Cabinet members on social media, prompting a magisterial inquiry to be launched.