In the introduction to the Basel Institute’s guide to laws targeting unexplained wealth, the author, Andrew Dornbierer, explains why it is so difficult for authorities to identify and recover what are formally known as ‘proceeds of crime’ – in layman’s terms, how to identify which portion of someone’s money is generated by lawful activity and which of it isn’t.
“In the modern and globalised economy, criminal proceeds can be laundered almost instantly, through a variety of different forms, and across borders with ease. In cash-heavy economies, hard currencies can be easily converted and transferred quickly between parties without leaving any significant or lasting record,” Dornbierer writes.
He then talks about how the difficulties faced by law enforcement are amplified when the jurisdiction they are operating in is corrupt. Given that an act of corruption often does not have an obvious victim who would file a complaint with authorities about it and that such an act tends to be a hidden, informal contract between two or more individuals or groups seeking personal gain, much of it remains unseen.
Enter “illicit enrichment laws” into the picture. You may recall how locally, similar legislative proposals – known as unexplained wealth orders – made their way to our very own Parliament before every single one of the Labour Party’s MPs voted against them. That particular proposal was one of twelve bills that the Nationalist Party had put forward two years ago as part of an effort to get the Maltese government to implement the recommendations of the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry board.
One look at the basic definition of these kinds of laws will immediately make it apparent why the Labour government has forcefully resisted the implementation of an objectively solid raft of anti-corruption laws, foremost among which would be to provide a judge or magistrate with the power to order the seizure of assets which were not purchased with documented, lawful income:
“These laws allow investigators and prosecutors to instead recover assets that have clearly not come from lawful sources without having to prove, to either a criminal or civil standard of proof, the initial criminal action that gave rise to these proceeds.”
Of course, this part of the article which defines the basic premise of what we’re talking about was not written for the likes of disgraced former prime minister Muscat. In his last stint as an MEP back in 2004 – when he became one of Malta’s first MEPs after spending half his career denigrating the notion of Malta’s ascent to the European Union – Muscat sat on a committee that monitored corruption and money laundering, learning how one must prop up the other for both to exist. He certainly doesn’t need me to explain the basics to him.
Now, precisely two decades later, his career having peaked at office of the prime minister shortly before he was left with no option but to retract his claws from the seat of power on the back of a litany of corruption and money laundering cases, he is yet again attempting to disgrace the European Parliament with his presence (which, considering that eminent body’s track record, is saying a lot).
When the Nationalist Party had proposed a dozen anti-corruption bills in the run-up to the 2022 general elections, Muscat was still in a position to enjoy what he would probably describe as a hard earned reprieve from the difficulties of being a prime minister. His successor, Robert Abela, was still happily left holding the bag after Muscat himself had already privatised our national energy infrastructure, three of our hospitals, and our passport while overseeing an administration that was so hopelessly corrupt a journalist was murdered for writing about it.
In brief, as Muscat watched his loyal party killing the anti-corruption bills before they had any chance to see the light of day, there was nothing to worry about. The enabler-successor was in place, the country was emerging from the pandemic worn down but hopeful (albeit not without having experienced some typical cock-ups along the way), Malta had burned through enough box-ticking exercises to get its name removed from the Financial Action Task Force’s grey-list, and all seemed well in Lilliput.
But then, the unthinkable happened. Those pesky journalists had the audacity to report about Muscat’s perfectly legitimate and totally not untoward affairs post-politics. He thinks it’s because his name sells headlines. He pretends to fail to understand that journalists zero in on everything he says because we’ve had to treat everything he says as suspect for the past decade. He pretends to fail to understand why his name does, in fact, sell headlines.
Even after having personally done everything he could have done to resist a public inquiry that looked into his administration’s failure to address corruption in the context of a journalist’s murder – a journalist who his party cast as a witch and a traitor – he still has the audacity to openly denigrate journalists by implying that journalists, being the amoral whores that we are, just want a headline that sells.
Those of us who know exactly what you did don’t want a headline with your name on it just because it sells. We don’t just want a headline with your name on it – we want a headline that says ‘Joseph Muscat in court on corruption charges’, because, if we were living in a functional democracy, that is exactly what we would be writing about at the moment instead of reporting every smirked out statement you make without providing the context of what you said.
It is for these reasons that when someone like Joseph Muscat does anything, even anything as somewhat unremarkable as a former prime minister pulling up in what Google Lens thinks is a 2023 Maserati Grecale (featured photo) – a vehicle that retailed at the €60,000 mark when it was first launched – it suddenly becomes newsworthy.
Love him or hate him, the fact is that hardly anyone would have thought twice about former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi showing up in the same vehicle, although those who are familiar with his frugal nature would likely pass a remark about his sudden interest in ostentatious vehicles. But when Muscat did the same, people picked up on it straight away and are still talking about it a few days later.
Everything I’ve referred to in this column points towards the mountain of suspicion that sits on Muscat’s doorstep. He can provide all the documentation he wants for his so-called consultancy work, he can give us all of his best sob stories about how a police raid on his house had upset his family, he can huff and puff at magistrates all he wants – there is nothing, however, that can be done about the fact that his name is synonymous with widespread corruption.
Even if the anti-money laundering regimes of the world (especially our own) are not sophisticated enough to instantly catch on to the movements of someone who is well-versed in hiding the proceeds of their corruption and their unmitigated greed, the fact is that as long as people like me exist, we will keep writing about it.
As those in charge of the recording, our duty as journalists isn’t to let the record show what the powers that be doctored and approved. It is to let it show what reality dictated to us as it happened.