Standards Committee agrees Muscat breached ethics by accepting Fenech’s birthday gifts

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Parliament’s Committee for Standards in Public Life has adopted Standards Commissioner George Hyzler’s conclusion that former prime minister Joseph Muscat was in breach of ethics when he accepted three expensive French wine bottles from Daphne Caruana Galizia murder suspect Yorgen Fenech as a birthday gift last year.

However, government and opposition MPs appear to be divided on what remedy should be asked of Muscat, with government MPs suggesting that the former PM’s decision to leave the wine bottles at the Girgenti Palace was sufficient.

Hyzler appeared in front of the committee on Wednesday afternoon, though after noting that “the report speaks for itself,” he emphasised that he did not wish to expand on its details.

But the former parliamentary secretary noted that he studiously avoided any mention of the criminal proceedings faced by Fenech, arguing that this was not why Muscat had breached ethics.

Muscat, he explained, ultimately invited a prominent businessman with extensive links to the government to a private function, in circumstances which would have encouraged him to bring a gift. The gift was of significant value and personalised, leaving no doubt that it was a personal and not a state gift, irrespective of what Muscat chose to do with it.

Hyzler reminded that similar circumstances had once forced the resignation of New South Wales premier Barry O’Farrell in 2014, who had failed to declare receipt of an expensive wine bottle – a 1959 vintage, indicating the year of his birth, much like the bottles Muscat received indicated the years in which he and his twin daughters were born. His party had defended his resignation as a sign of integrity, not of corruption, but O’Farrell still ended up paying a political price.

“I have an interest in redeeming our political class: we need to do so,” Hyzler told the committee. “And I feel it is my duty to make my contribution.”

Debate in committee opened earlier this month, but this brief initial meeting only covered a few procedural matters. However, Hyzler will be addressing the committee in today’s sitting.

The committee is chaired by Speaker Anġlu Farrugia, and comprises two government and two opposition MPs. It is the only standing committee in which government and opposition are represented equally: government MPs form a majority in all other cases.

15:18 With this meeting now over, our live blog ends here. Thank you for following.
John Paul Cordina
15:16 The next meeting is set to take place on 17 August.
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15:14 Farrugia draws the meeting to a close, but is reminded that the committee had not yet agreed to schedule its next meeting.
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15:11 Farrugia mediates, suggesting that the committee should adopt the findings of the report. Muscat will be invited to speak to the committee – or to send a statement in writing – should he wish to do so.
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15:11 The government MPs wish to conclude proceedings today, but Aquilina is insisting that Muscat should appear.
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15:09 That the committee's five members are all lawyers by profession is perhaps most evident as they discuss the procedure to be followed.
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15:08 But Aquilina contests the minister's interpretation, stating that Hyzler focused on Muscat's behaviour in accepting Fenech's gift.
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15:07 Zammit Lewis insists that the ethical breach was rectified by Muscat's decision to surrender the wine bottles, and insists that the Hyzler's findings were in line with this.
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15:04 Elaborating further, Camilleri states that summoning Muscat would mean that the committee is accepting new testimony on the matter, pushing for the adoption of the committee in today's sitting.
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15:02 Camilleri suggests that if Muscat is asked to appear, the committee would be effectively expressing doubt in Hyzler's findings.
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15:01 Zammit Lewis and Camilleri both contest Aquilina's reasoning, with Zammit Lewis highlighting that unlike a court, the committee could not constrain Muscat to appear.

It was up to Muscat to choose whether he wished to appear in front of the committee or not.
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15:01 Aquilina says that in the circumstances, it was positive that the government appeared to accept the findings of the report.

But he insisted that Muscat should be asked to appear in front of the committee.
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15:00 Zammit Lewis argues that if the report is adopted, then Hyzler's own comments on the suggested remedy should be taken into account.
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14:58 Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri highlights that the committee will now need to vote on whether to adopt the report and what action to recommend.
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14:55 Hyzler leaves the room, leaving committee members to discuss the way forward.
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14:55 But inviting someone with strong business ties to the government, who the politician concerned only came to know through their political efforts, was another matter entirely.
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14:54 In response to another question by Mifsud Bonnici, Hyzler emphasises that when there was nothing wrong with politicians inviting close friends they have known for years to private functions.
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14:52 Hyzler emphasises that using a transparency registry to register all gifts received is important.

In this case, it would not even matter if the gifts were personal or state gifts: if there was nothing untoward, there should be no issue with leaving a record.
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14:51 But in this case, he reiterates, the gifts were clearly personal.
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14:51 Hyzler emphasises that as a former politician, he understood that the situation can be challenging, and that it is often hard to distinguish between personal gifts and gifts to the state.
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14:49 Speaker Anġlu Farrugia starts his first question by highlighting that he long questioned the close ties between politicians and businesses.

But he questions, in the circumstances, whether Muscat had any other choice. He also questions what remedies Muscat could be asked to offer after resigning from PM.
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14:48 "I have an interest in redeeming our political class: we need to do so," Hyzler maintains.

"And I feel it is my duty to make my contribution."
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14:45 But Hyzler also highlights the 2014 resignation of New South Wales premier Barry O'Farrel over the gift of a bottle of wine – worth some €2,000 – made by a businessman.

He highlights that O'Farrel's resignation was an issue not of corruption, but of integrity.
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14:44 It was up to the committee to make such a recommendation, he says. The committee could also choose to agree or disagree with the findings of the report.
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14:43 Hyzler notes that while he could make recommendations, he chose not to make any in this case, adding that he did not know what recommendation to make if he had to.
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14:41 In his first question, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis suggests that the fact that Muscat left the wine bottles in Girgenti was sufficient remedy.
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14:38 Aquilina refers to a parliamentary question he had made, which led to the publication of an inventory of gifts received by Muscat.

Hyzler notes that he drew the attention to the fact that if the inventory was genuine, a number of issues needed to be addressed. But it was up to the Auditor-General to look into the list itself.
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14:35 The commissioner states that the Prime Minister should lead by example, and that by accepting gifts as Muscat had done, they might make other ministers more comfortable in accepting gifts themselves.
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14:35 Hyzler highlights that he felt it was not prudent to look into the security services' actions. But he emphasised that this was secondary to the fact that Muscat accepted a personal, expensive, gift from a prominent businessman.
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14:34 PN MP Karol Aquilina asks Hyzler to elaborate on the advice purportedly given by the secret service.
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14:33 In reply to another question by Mifsud Bonnici, Hyzler emphasises that there was nothing wrong with Muscat using the Girgenti Palace for a private function, since it does serve as the PM's official summer residence.
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14:32 Hyzler also did not verify whether it was true that the secret services urged Muscat to invite Fenech so as not to arouse suspicions in Fenech – who was already suspected of ordering the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
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14:31 Hyzler also reveals that he did not check whether it was true that the wine bottles were left in the Girgenti Palace.

However, he made a point to highlight that he was not implying that he did not believe Muscat.
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14:29 Mifsud Bonnici now asks on the personal nature on the gifts.

Hyzler recounts that he highlighted the vintage of the Pétrus wine bottles – one dates back to the year of Muscat's birth, and two others to the year in which his twin children were born.
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14:28 Hyzler highlights that his remit includes making recommendations for changes to the code of ethics governing politicians.
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14:27 PN MP Carm Mifsud Bonnici asks the first question, concerning any recommendations that Hyzler would be making to prevent such incidents in the future.
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14:26 He also recalls that Muscat had condemned former minister Tonio Fenech for accepting to fly on a private jet – coincidentally owned by Yorgen Fenech's late father George – and for accepting a traditional Maltese clock.

And rightfully so, he makes it clear.
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14:25 He emphasises that the context of Muscat's party, a small intimate gathering, 'provoked' the granting of gifts, and that Fenech's gift was not insignificant in value.
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14:23 Hyzler recalls that he called for 'social distancing' between businessemen and politicians, and not just during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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14:21 The meeting is now being broadcast on Parliament TV, though some technical issues appear to persist.

Hyzler goes over the main points he had said, perhaps for the benefit of the TV audience.
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14:16 As mentioned earlier, the committee meeting is not being aired live on Parliament TV and video is not working, though audio can still be followed.

Farrugia has been alerted of technical problems by Parliament staff, and the meeting is temporarily suspended.
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14:15 The issue, Hyzler adds, is that Muscat invited Fenech, who was involved in extensive business dealings with the government, to an intimate private function. The other issues Fenech is involved in were beyond the point.
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14:14 He highlights that he made a point not to refer to any criminal proceedings or corruption allegations involving Fenech, as they were beyond the point of his investigation.
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14:12 Hyzler now takes the opportunity to address accusations of conflict of interest levied by government whip Glenn Bedingfield.

Bedingfield highlighted that Hyzler is married to lawyer Giannella de Marco, who he described as Yorgen Fenech's lawyer. In truth, it is her son by a previous marriage, Gianluca Caruana Curran, who forms part of Fenech's defence team.
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14:12 Hyzler states that the report speaks for itself, and while he would be happy to answer MPs' questions, he did not wish to expand too much on what he wrote.
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14:09 Speaker and committee chairman Anġlu Farrugia invites Standards Commissioner George Hyzler to address the committee.
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14:08 The sitting has just started, though it is not yet airing on Parliament TV as scheduled.

However, all Parliament proceedings – including committee meetings – may be followed through its website parlament.mt.
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