Foreign affairs minister Carmelo Abela has found himself in the eye of the storm after Lovin Malta revealed he had emailed former police inspector Jonathan Ferris to request a progress update on a case he was investigating.
Since then, the Opposition has demanded Abela’s resignation while Abela – who was home affairs minister at the time – said he was just trying to help out a defrauded person who had grown frustrated at the police’s lack of communication to him about his own case.
Let’s start with a pretty obvious point. It is clear Carmelo Abela had no nefarious intent when he sent that email to Jonathan Ferris. Suggestions floating around online that the ‘person’ Abela was helping out was actually Pilatus Bank do not seem to have any basis in reality; indeed, Ferris himself told Lovin Malta the investigation was a “generic case of fraud” and one that wasn’t politically sensitive.
A clue to Abela’s intent can also be found in his choice of communication. If he truly wanted to pry out sensitive information from Ferris or if he was aware he was breaching some law or code, then logic says he would not have sent an email directly to Ferris but would have found some way of approaching him or getting someone to approach him directly.
Former police inspector Jonathan Ferris
Police sources also told Lovin Malta they could see nothing wrong with Abela’s email, arguing it is within a minister’s remit to request for progress on a case and that he would have stepped out of line had he demanded information about the investigation itself.
As it stands, there is no reason to doubt Abela’s genuineness.
Yet that does not make what he did right; actually the email reflects a more insidious problem in Malta- namely the lack of proper demarcation lines between the central government, the authorities and the general public.
Abela may have been merely trying to help an aggrieved person seek justice, but by emailing Ferris he not so indirectly signalled to him to prioritise the case in question. The pressure becomes more obvious when one takes into account Ferris’ statement that Ian Abdilla, the assistant police commissioner in charge of the Economic Crimes Unit, had urged him to accede to Abela’s request so as not to create a “diplomatic incident” (ostensibly between the government and the police).
Knowing the home affairs minister’s eyes were on him, Ferris could have easily given to this pressure and prioritised the fraud case in question ahead of other investigations. This would have had serious consequences though. Essentially, a police investigation would have been prioritised merely because the injured party had the foresight to complain to the home affairs minister.
Opposition leader Adrian Delia has called on Carmelo Abela to resign
This is a problem, made more serious by the fact Carmelo Abela didn’t even believe it was a problem at all.
As a rule of thumb, Maltese politicians tend to be very close to the people they represent, and while this provides a welcome platform for people to air their concerns it also creates the ripe conditions for a culture of political favours to flourish.
And flourish it has. Ministers using their political clout to twist or circumvent the law is a widely condemnable practice, but we do tend to cast a blind eye on benign political favours. It is considered acceptable, if not applaudable, for ministers to use their power to ensure people’s rights are upheld and justice is done.
But this creates problems of a different kind. If a minister intervenes to fix a bumpy street in front of a citizen’s house, then that indirectly means roadworks are getting prioritised depending on the minister’s personal contacts. And if a minister intervenes to ask for the progress on a police investigation, then that indirectly means police investigations risk getting prioritised depending on who falls within the minister’s circle.
Granted, the case against Abela is a mild one considering what other Maltese politicians have gotten away with. Yet it is symptomatic of a situation in which people feel the need to rely on ministers to access their rights. And that is not what should be happening in a well-oiled democracy.