What is the tax man doing in Sin City?

Hearing the NGOs baying for blood now? They would be right this time around - Malta’s dismal track record on accountability and ethics in public life is leaving us gasping for air

Yesterday’s front-page story in MaltaToday says much about the custom of men and women who seem to think a good time should not come in the way of the integrity they should hold or which should reflect their job or standing.

Conflicts of interest in Malta, really seem to be impossible to shirk off... and we have a habit of forgetting how this problem has constantly pervaded Maltese society. At the start of my journalism career, I remember one of the first stories I wrote was about Maltese freemasonry. Among the names that surfaced from the Leinster Lodge’s list of honourable brothers, were established lawyers and businessmen, and of course a magistrate.

That magistrate, Carol Peralta, went on to serve for 13 years at the United Nations tribunal in Kosovo with jurisdiction over war crimes and organised crime. He was then appointed presiding judge of the Special Chamber of the Supreme Court of Kosovo.

When outed as a freemason back in the 1990s, Peralta refused to resign. Of course, his time as a freemason had little impact on his UN post. Today, readers might know as the lawyer who sits beside Konrad Mizzi in his parliamentary committee hearing.

As his story illustrates, conflicts of interest or not, Maltese civil servants and public appointees seem to think that the rules of public service – spoken and not – count for everyone else but them.

Today's story refers to another public servant, the former Commissioner of Revenue Marvin Gaerty, who today has a consultant’s role in a very important working group in the finance ministry on tax issues.

Gaerty naturally has a very sensitive role, being privy to the tax situations of many every individual and company, heading a sensitive department responsible for collecting national revenue as it is. My recollection of the man is of someone who took his job seriously. But perhaps, I can see now that I was being very superficial in my assessment.

From where I stand right now, to be in such a sensitive role and fly off to Las Vegas with two young guys to watch an MMA fight, whose friendship appears to be based only on a shared interest in boxing, and considering that these chaps were already facing public criticism over the business they ran (not to mention that the TCU had alerted one of them to an audit of Princess Holdings less than two months earlier), and then be snapped in a hired Bentley with them, raises more questions than answers.

The photos simply scream cash being splurged.

And Gaerty, like most directors in government, might not have been paid a top wage for his role as in the rest of the private sector. A €3,000 trip to Las Vegas for a quick week can also be just a tad too rich for a civil servant; one asks: is Gaerty’s wage the kind of money that allows you to go to Sin City to watch Conor McGregor fight?

The obvious implications of Malta’s chief tax man visiting Las Vegas with these kinds of guys, might be all too clear even to those who are not immediately hit by the ethical issues the story raises. Because this is not the only incident in which people who are in sensitive posts have put themselves in such a situation.

Boys may be boys, but when a group of 20-somethings are suddenly loaded with too much money to spend, the obvious question is: where is the money coming from?

And again, the question is not just Gaerty’s trip to Las Vegas, but rather his choice of friends, people who had been the subject of a tax audit only weeks before, and would have therefore raised several red flags for someone in a top position like his. In such a job, you are susceptible to entreaties of all kinds for clemency.

Hearing the NGOs baying for blood now? They would be right this time around.

Malta’s dismal track record on accountability and ethics in public life is leaving us gasping for air. Is there anyone in public service who can lend themselves to the decorum their positions entail? It just seems to be getting really hard to find people to really take the ethical ramifications of certain public postings seriously.

Public service should certainly be rewarded for the importance the job entails. But it also should be reserved to those people who appreciate and understand the responsibility of their job, and the strict ethical standards they should abide with.

Knowing that the chief of tax was on holiday in Las Vegas with these kinds of people is distressing, because it gives the impression that there is no end to this scandalous love affair between public servants, politicians and suspicious business.

And it comes at a time when such matters could leave an impression on the voting public, in an election that still seems weeks, if not months away.