In an earlier post, I wrote about Keith Schembri declaring himself governed by the ethics of a tax avoider and applying that as a justification, as he sees it, for his conduct in public office. That wasn’t the worst bit of the character evidence he gave on his own behalf yesterday at the Daphne inquiry.
Consider the bit where he was being asked about Tillgate, the company he set up while in office as prime minister’s chief of staff, and what he said he planned to do with it.
Therese Comodini Cachia, as reported by Times of Malta, is asking the questions:
The document listed the scope of business as being in the maritime and fisheries sector. Why did it cite Bangladesh?
“I mentioned it because there’s room for development there and I also knew that Yorgen Fenech had some project there,” he says.
Schembri says there were also indications that there was room for growth in the gaming sector in Malta. He got that impression after speaking to people in the sector.
Comodini Cachia: So as chief of staff, you got information from international meetings and put it to own business use?
Schembri: The information was in the public domain. Did my life end just because I was chief of staff?
Comodini Cachia: But did you intend to go into business while chief of staff?
Schembri: Certainly not.
I can’t make up my mind if Keith Schembri is so arrogant as to think that there can be no consequence for a public confession of corruption or so ill-informed as to imagine that what he is admitting to here does not amount to corruption.
Using public office for private profit is corrupt. That includes using knowledge, information and contacts through public office for private profit. And it does not matter if the public officer intends and acts to collect that profit after they leave office. Corruption does not require immediate completion of a transaction.
Take the bit about the “indications that there was room for growth in the gaming sector in Malta”. By his own account “people in the sector” are approaching him because he is the prime minister’s chief of staff. It’s not like there’s an open market for prime minister’s chiefs of staff. There’s only one government and there is only one other person holding greater effective political clout and authority than the prime minister’s chief of staff.
The “people in the sector” don’t go speaking to the government official armed with an NDA to avoid him using any commercial knowledge they have to share with him to get some decision or action out of him to enter into some competition with them or to steal their intellectual property.
They engage with the government rightly expecting someone above and outside the fray.
What a government official needs to do with the knowledge they acquire about an economic sector is to seek to use it to refine government policy and action, to ensure compliance with the law and to ensure that wealth is distributed fairly and as widely as possible. What they definitely must not be doing is working out how they’re going to make money for themselves out of that knowledge.
It’s not merely unethical. It’s corrupt. It’s not pro-business at all. On the contrary, it’s anti-business. Businesses do not want a competitor or intervenor in their economic activity. They want a regulator and an enabler who leaves the money-making to them.
Keith Schembri rhetorically asks: “Did my life end just because I was chief of staff?” His life as a businessman should have, or it should have at least been frozen the day he stepped into Castille and stayed frozen until he had left it.
But Keith Schembri also said yesterday that “Perhaps what I did wrong was to go on thinking like a businessman.” You can bet your long-lost mobile phone.