Sunday 29 November 2020

Six degrees of Yorgen Fenech

Some of you may have heard of the innovative board game created in 1994 by an enterprising group of college students, known as “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

It is based on the premise of ‘six degrees of separation’, a concept which maintains that any two people on earth are only six or fewer acquaintances apart. The board game came about when the students heard veteran actor Kevin Bacon saying in an interview that he has worked with practically everyone in Hollywood. This led to a lightbulb moment and the game was born; it is played by linking any movie star, living or dead, to Bacon within six steps.

I remembered all this when reading the news headlines which kept popping up, as more and more people are being linked to the notorious Yorgen Fenech, the alleged mastermind behind the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. A lot of people, it seems, are connected to Fenech in one way or another, either through numerous phone calls, dinners at his house or, as we have now learned, by going on a trip with him to Las Vegas.

And despite the famous catchphrase that, ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’, in this case, it has all come spilling out. Even though the Vegas trip took place in 2018, well before he was named as the owner of the offshore company 17 Black, and his eventual arrest for his sinister alleged involvement in the assassination, any association with Yorgen Fenech is now tantamount to a poisoned chalice.

The problem with such a close degree of closeness with Fenech would be there even if he were not a murder suspect. The cosy relationships which people in top, politically sensitive, posts have with big businessmen cannot be swept aside simply because it all happened before the money laundering and murder allegations. Here we had the CEO of the Malta Financial Services Authority (who had just left the Malta Gaming Authority), the legal counsel for the Gaming Authority and a government official from the most sensitive office of all, the Office of the Prime Minister, seeing nothing wrong with accepting a trip paid for by Fenech. There are so many kinds of wrong with it that it makes me wonder whether these people are just all wired differently to the rest of us.

Accepting a gift such as this immediately puts you under an obligation; it is an unspoken agreement for a future favour which can be called in when the time is ripe. Some will argue that this is simply the way Malta ‘works’, but it should also come as no surprise that this web of far-reaching connections, which for so many years has linked big business to politics to tenders and contracts, to shell companies and to money laundering (and worse) are the main reason why we are in the mess we are in.

When contacted for his version of events by the Times,”MFSA chief executive Joe Cuschieri confirmed he had gone on a trip to “one of the world’s leading casino hotels”, but insisted there was no conflict of interest or ethical breach. He said the trip in question had happened at a time when he had left the MGA. “I was invited by Mr Fenech to attend this trip as the former regulator of the gaming sector,” Cuschieri said of his Las Vegas trip. “At the time Mr Fenech was considering undertaking an investment and I was invited to advise on regulatory matters,” Cuschieri said. 

When people in such positions see nothing ethically wrong in accepting a freebie, or its implications, it really makes me wonder what is wrong with them. Having left the gaming sector does not mean Cuschieri was now a free agent who could accept expense-paid invitations from whoever he likes, because he had just been appointed to an arguably even more sensitive post, which is supposed to regulate and scrutinise all financial services, which includes gaming. It is not as if he had gone off to become self-employed or to work in a private company where he is accountable to no one.

However, it seems that the MFSA has not taken such a nonchalant view of the incident and has issued the following statement, “in keeping with the principles of good governance, the Malta Financial Services Authority (MFSA) is hereby giving notice that the Chief Executive Officer, Joseph Cuschieri, has, earlier on today, advised that he is voluntarily suspending himself from his duties to allow the Board of Governors to carry out any verifications necessary in relation to events reported in the media in recent days.
The MFSA’s General Counsel, Edwina Licari, who, at the time of the events, was not yet in the Authority’s employ, has similarly suspended herself for the Board to conduct its due process.”

Obviously, in such a small country, numerous connections and links (not to mention family relationships) are inevitable, and are probably less than six degrees of separation away. But that is why there is even more of a need to keep an arm’s length away from certain potentially compromising situations once one has accepted a top official position which is paid from public funds. If you do not want such restrictions, then stop wangling your way into powerful posts paid from our taxes and fend for yourself in private industry instead.

Back in school: One month later

Just over a month has passed since schools re-opened their doors, among much heated debate and under a constant cloud of threats by teachers’ unions to call a strike.

In a purely unscientific Facebook poll, I asked parents whether they have regretted their decision to send their children to school, or to keep them at home for online learning, as the case may be. Most of those who answered were happy to have taken the plunge to send their children back to school and described how happy their kids were to return to the classroom routine and re-unite with their friends. Those who have opted for online, were equally glad to have stuck to their decision. There did not seem to be a difference between those who send their children to Church, Government and Independent schools, although some schools seemed to be more prepared than others.

I asked this question not because there was a right or wrong answer: obviously, all parents had to decide what was in the best interest of their own family and economic situation. Each household is different, with some being in a nuclear family, while others have grandparents living with them. There are parents who have taken the difficult decision to keep their children away from grandparents to protect the latter, which was a truly heartbreaking choice to have to make. From the numbers which have been reported, it does not seem that the predicted outbreak of cases in schools has actually happened. In her weekly press briefing on Friday, Prof Gauci confirmed that transmission among children was not high and that schools were doing a good job in creating a safe environment. I trust I have not spoken too soon and that the situation will remain like this because I am more convinced than ever that children belong physically back in the classroom for their educational as well as mental wellbeing.

Whether teachers and lecturers feel the same way about being back in the classroom, is obviously an entirely different topic. Like parents, educators also come from a variety of household dynamics and their mixed emotions depend on whom they share their home with. In some cases, they have had to tailor their own behaviour accordingly in order to protect those they come into contact with, so sacrifices are being made all round. In tertiary education, with so many lectures still being given online, the University is unfortunately still too much like a ghost town, bereft of the life and vibrancy of its young students who are missing out on campus life.

On the whole, however, this surreal scholastic year seems to be a case of, so far, so good. I would just like to add though, that as much as I recently praised independent schools for being so pro-active, I was greatly taken aback that one particular school, San Anton, is actually charging parents for the Covid measures it has taken. One outraged parent published the invoice he has received, and with two children in this school it will be costing him an additional €450 a year. At a time when many people in various industries have taken a hard hit because of the pandemic, surely the school could have avoided passing on any expenses incurred on to the parents (who are already paying quite hefty fees)? This is not a time to be greedy, and it is certainly not a time to exploit people’s willingness to pay up out of fear, or what is worse, some form of stigma.

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