Joseph Cuschieri’s response to the long-delayed publication of an internal report that found what we’ve known since his trip to Las Vegas at Yorgen Fenech’s expense was discovered was not simply that he had done no wrong. His response was that he didn’t think he had done wrong and what he thinks is apparently more important than the rule book he broke.
The report comes on the back of the publication of chats between Yorgen Fenech and Rosianne Cutajar where among other intimate details they discuss another of Yorgen Fenech’s extramarital liaisons. That was with Charlene Bianco Farrugia who wasn’t just any girlfriend. She was an official in the office of the prime minister and for some time the personal assistant of “Keith”, the prime minister’s chief of staff.
But that, you might say, is a conflict of interest for Ms Bianco Farrugia, not for Joseph Cuschieri and the three’s travelling companion Edwina Licari.
Joseph Cuschieri’s conflict of interest was more complex even than that. As a matter of fact, he accepted Yorgen Fenech’s gift while being a witness in a lawsuit over an allegedly unlawful extension of the Portomaso casino which Yorgen Fenech owns, and Joseph Cuschieri oversaw as regulator.
As a matter of law, the MFSA rules say that “members of staff should not solicit or accept any advantage, or any promise thereof from any person or company having business with the Authority or is licenced by the Authority or who provides a service to licence holders.”
Joseph Cuschieri’s response to all this is that he ‘did not feel conflicted’ and ‘would have declared his conflict’ if he felt he had any. This logic, such as it is, stretches the same logic that exonerated Edwina Licari who had also been on the trip, but no wrongdoing was found in her case because on several occasions she had declared her conflict of interest and declined to decide on matters concerning Yorgen Fenech.
Joseph Cuschieri had not done that, but he was new to the MFSA and, as he argued in the final copout of any Maltese criminal, it’s impossible in a small place like Malta not to appear too close to everyone and anyone else.
I can’t see how the fact that Edwina Licari declared her conflict of interest clears her for accepting Yorgen Fenech’s hospitality on a trip to Las Vegas. That’s not too far from forgiving an official for accepting a brown envelope full of cash from someone they regulate because they declare the bribe in their tax return.
A regulator, a government official, is not excused from their obligation to avoid conflict of interest merely by declaring it. An official may find themselves in a situation they did nothing to bring about: for example, a gaming regulator might be the cousin of a gaming business owner. Declaring the interest there is both necessary and sufficient. But frankly, accepting the hospitality of a regulated customer like Yorgen Fenech on a trip to Las Vegas is eminently avoidable and the decision not to avoid it is, in my view, though not the view of the MFSA’s internal investigation, inexcusable.
Joseph Cuschieri continues to insist on his innocence with the most maddening of excuses. ‘I didn’t think I was wrong,’ he says, ‘ergo I wasn’t wrong’. Shall we start having criminals prosecuting and judging themselves, watching as they decide what punishment is appropriate for their own misdeeds? Do we now leave it to people in public office who are caught accepting bribes to decide whether those bribes influenced their actions and decisions in any way?
Knowing about Yorgen Fenech’s relationship with Joe Cuschieri may be less prurient than the leaked chats he had with Rosianne Cutajar though the chats he had with Rosianne Cutajar include colourful details that inform some of the things that may have happened on that Las Vegas trip.
But Fenech’s relationship with Cuschieri shines even brighter light on the extent of corruption during the Muscat-Abela decade. Speaking of the “proximity” between “business” and political power, as some reluctant critics of the government do is so restrictive. This is not proximity. This is intercourse. And it isn’t with “business”. This is politics becoming one with and indivisible from crime.
And if you hoped, even for a minute, that anything has changed, remember that Joseph Cuschieri just yesterday said again that he thought he had done nothing wrong and that should be enough for us.