Last week after the inauguration of the new prime minister, the Malta Chamber of Commerce presented its list of complaints and a list of changes required for Malta to regain its lost reputation. This list is most welcome, coming from the widest section of the productive Maltese economy. It must be a telling message to the new prime minister when such a body makes such a public message that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” as Marcello tells Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play.
That was only a play but the situation in Malta is and has been our reality for six whole years.
Even though the situation started to rot six years ago, began to smell five years ago, got to a stench 4 years ago with the Panama Papers and reached putrefication in 2017 with the cold blooded assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, our venerable Chamber situated just a few metres from the Palace and as close as can be to the corridors of power, only found it opportune to voice their discontent today.
Shame on them.
Why did they wait so long? Have their members, silent for the last six years, feathered their nests, made, as Sandro Chetcuti of the developers’ association once called ‘hay while the sun shines’ during this time? Were their members amongst the several hundred owners of Panama accounts which were disclosed to the authorities, but not to us, the public? That is why it is obscene that even though what they ask for are the right things, they react only now, when their businesses start to suffer. They try to appear holier than thou.
I know for sure that they knew about the troubles affecting the country, the government and the business community. In fact, when I served as a pro bono president of the Chamber’s Malta Business Bureau, I personally blocked Nexia BT from assuming the role of auditor to the MBB at the end of 2016.
Shortly after this decision, early in 2017, at a dinner at one of the ambassadors accredited to Malta and in the presence of a number of luminaries of the accountancy world, I criticised Malta for being a tax haven and expressed my disdain for the Chamber of Accountants for not censuring that company and other auditing firms involved in the Panama Papers.
The next day I was called up by the President of the Malta Chamber of Commerce. I was asked to go to a meeting the next day and since I was sure this was an attempt to censure me and to ask me not to rock the boat, I resigned with immediate effect from my role as President of the MBB and from the Chamber that very same moment.
I would not accept to have my freedom of expression reduced in any way.
Yet, between January 2017 and January 2020 the Chamber continued to work as though everything was doing well in Malta. It was only when civil society had had enough after 2 full years had gone by since the brutal murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and took to the streets and started to affect retail business, tourism and financial services that the Chamber deemed it time to react to the tsunami that was about to engulf Joseph Muscat and his cronies.
A similar reproach can also be made to the Chamber of Architects, who, after having had many of their members castrate the planning policies through lobbying, bribery of board members, false declarations, twists and broken up submissions to obtain permits by subterfuge for their clients, they also make some critical comments. Their sole criticism of their members was that these did not prioritise beauty but speed, price and height instead. The Chamber should sanction the many architects who have promoted and signed applications for clients knowing that such submissions were either false, damaging to the built-up environment, too close to archaeological remains, spoiling the skyline of historical buildings, village cores or monuments, dangerously close to neighbouring fragile premises when allowing demolition.
I have not seen any sanctions or naming and shaming of architects. Is this a chamber or a chamber pot of professionals brown-nosing their ravaging developers, their well-paying clients? When your client has intent to breach existing contracts (Zammit Tabona at Fortina, Portelli at Qala, Gasan at Sliema Townhall, Fenech at St Julians, Debono at Pembroke) to mention only the best known cases, the architect should denounce and not prepare plans and get paid. Money stinks in such cases.
What about the Chamber of Accountants?
These sound like the echo chambers used to test aircraft engines. They are so solidly built and isolated as not to allow any sound to disturb the environment. The silence of these two chambers is deafening.
Nexia BT has been allowed to set up Panama Companies and to sit on selection committees of tenders tainted by the smell and soon by the proof of bribery and corruption. They have made secret Skype calls to set up Egrant for a very, very high ranking politically exposed Maltese person. They have received millions of euro of direct orders from Castille and never been blacklisted or had charges brought against them by the police.
What about PWC and the Angola blood diamond stolen billions funnelled through Malta over many years and now suddenly exposed? ‘We did not know,’ wail the poor accountants.
Any due diligence about the De Santos lady and why she should at all pass a penny through Malta would have immediately raised a red flag. It is too late now to cut relations and think you are out of the woods. Accountants advising and auditing Enron went to prison, same with Lehman brothers and Parmalat. Why should this be any difference in Malta?
What about KPMG and Pilatus Bank? Their own auditor even joined the bank staff, went to the Iranian crook’s wedding and was involved in the night suitcases taken aboard the private jet that infamous night. The jet that took nobody – or so the manifest claims – to Azerbaijan and then to Dubai. The jet company that a few weeks later received a million euro of government advertising through The tourist board for in flight adverts. This million-dollar contract was given out by Konrad Mizzi. Where are the police who should be investigating him? The jet company flies a few hundred persons a year as well as, it is alleged, Pilatus bank documents to be secreted in Dubai where Joseph Muscat just flew to sign a consultancy agreement – or so the news tell us. Is this the most recent way of laundering money?
It sounds very much like a scheme set up by the likes of Henley and Partners. Slush money placed in a secret account transferred to the Dubai government or member of the ruling family and then paid out in a public contract for advisory services to Joseph Muscat. Clean money, or so they call it.
But the accountancy chamber says nothing. Omertà at its absolute level.
Are our Chambers just hollow chambers or are they chamber pots collecting the excrements of our sick society?
Lawyers, architects, accountants, politicians and industry and commercial enterprises are the core of society. They should represent the crème de la crème. By in their silence they are part of the cover up; of the omertà that normally is the signature tune of the mafia.
The Chamber of Lawyers is even more silent and more mafia looking in its omertà.
Many honest and good Maltese lawyers know who lies behind the multitude of nominee companies that their less honest legal colleagues set up these last 15 years. Good legal firms do good due diligence and learn to know their clients before opening companies or help carry out tax avoidance or tax planning structures for their customers bringing cleanly earned money but wanting to avoid paying French, German, Italian or Swedish tax.
Some say this is not wrong but good planning. The money after all is earned from clean business or inherited. Tax avoidance using tax havens remains immoral even though the earnings did not derive from criminal activities or dictatorships robbing their countries.
Ferreting away taxes from neighbouring EU member States using Malta as a conduit and assisted by local law firms who charge fees for this criminal activity is not on. That was not why Malta joined the EU.
Yet it is not as bad as advising and managing the setting up of companies and schemes for tax avoidance, money laundering or even avoiding police detection for criminally earned money, or for monies stolen by dictators from their countries. This service by law firms should be criticised and exposed by the Chamber. Here again we have had a number of these cases and we have public knowledge that at least 385 Panama Accounts owned by people who are not politically exposed, but still Maltese citizens and Maltese companies, having been exposed by the Panama Papers. This exposure is but the tip of the iceberg and therefore there are certainly many other non-disclosed owners of secret companies in Panama, the British Virgin Islands and other tax havens that Maltese lawyers know of, but fail to report.
As a Maltese lawyer myself I find such actions by friends, former colleagues and people I respected to be a gross deception. It is also a failure to live up to the oath one takes when one receives a warrant to practice as a lawyer. The omertà that the Chamber is showing is misplaced. Like the named law firms and lawyers there are certainly several others who have not been exposed but who are certainly well known to most lawyers in Malta.
Why has the Chamber of Advocates not condemned these law firms but simply accepted that cutting off ties with their clients after having earned great amounts of money from them over several years and kept their mouths shut as normal practice? In a normal country the Chamber of Lawyers upholds the rule of law, not breaks it.
That criminal politicians and non-legal entrepreneurs or developers do that can be understood and condemned. But when lawyers, who have full knowledge of the law, do this, this becomes an aggravated crime. We have gone beyond the limits of a democratic first world country where we thought we belonged.
When a country has more lawyers and estate agents in proportion to its population than most other similarly sized countries something must be rotten in that state.
Doing nothing about it; allowing consultancies, auditors, lawyers and architects to cut relations with such criminal clients that they may have had and throwing their arms up in the air stating that, had we known we would not have worked for that client, does not absolve them. You cannot undo a scrambled egg. Hoping that the truth about the many Italian mafia deals in our gaming industry, aided and abetted by Maltese lawyers and accountants and blessed by the gaming authority or the MFSA or by the police and the attorney general and supported by the Chambers of Accountants and Lawyers, does not make things better.
Just as in the church with the child molestation disclosures of the recent years it is time to disclose and defrock, to imprison and punish the perpetrators. The same applies to the crooked practitioners of our august professions: lawyers, accountants and architects.
Wake up Chambers, follow the lead of the Chamber of Commerce. It’s better to act late than to never act. But do not expect praise for doing now what you should have done years ago. The damage to Malta is also due to your collective silence and your continued silence condemns you.
John Vassallo is a Lawyer and former Ambassador of Malta to the EU.