Fenech Farrugia denies favouring single operator: ‘I was accessible to all operators at all times’

Rachel Attard & Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 3 March 2019, 11:00 Last update: about 4 hours ago

Suspended Fisheries Director Andreina Fenech Farrugia, who is currently at the heart of a scandal regarding the tuna fishing sector, has hit out against the perception that she was favouring one operator over others, stating that she was “accessible to all operators at all times,” while again categorically denying any wrongdoing.

Fenech Farrugia was suspended following allegations that she demanded money from a major Spanish tuna operator José Fuentes García for personal use. Spanish newspaper El Confidential had published leaked phone intercepts by the Spanish authorities allegedly showing how Fenech Farrugia asked Spanish bluefin tuna kingpin José Fuentes García for payment. Spain has been investigating the fisheries situation. Fenech Farrugia has denied any wrongdoing and asking for or taking money for herself.

Soon after the allegation that she had demanded funds from the tuna operator, and news of her suspension broke, Fenech Farrugia insisted that payments were only made to her in her official capacity, declaring that she was “singled out” in an extensive investigation that included many operators. The suspended director said the allegations levelled against her were based on summaries of alleged phone calls she could not confirm as having been made. The transcripts, she said, were not word-for-word, which means that some parts may have been misinterpreted or taken out of context. The Spanish language used in the summaries was of very poor quality, she said, which may have also led to misinterpretation.

Recently however, a number of fish farm operators contacted by this newspaper had indicated that Fenech Farrugia had always favoured Spanish tuna kingpin Jose Fuentes in negotiations and discussions, thus fanning the flames of the allegations.

In one conversation which was reproduced by El Confidencial, Fenech Farrugia reportedly spoke to Fuentes about a request from Brussels. Fuentes reportedly told her he would be landing in Malta at 10.30pm and asked her to join him for dinner. She reportedly told him that she could not have dinner with him in Malta, and that if he was at the hotel at 11pm she would come and meet him and, if not, she would meet him at 6am.

Asked why she offered to meet Fuentes so late in the evening or so early in the morning at his hotel, Fenech Farrugia said: “For as long as I have occupied senior positions in the Department, I have been accessible to all operators at all times. It was not unusual, according to the exigencies and needs of the sector or the operators or as dictated by the particular needs of the circumstances that I would schedule meetings early in the morning or late at night according to the urgency of the situation.”

This newsroom sent a number of other questions to Fenech Farrugia after her statement in which she said she was being ‘singled out’ in the investigation that included many operators. She was asked to clarify how she was being singled out and by whom.

In her response, Fenech Farrugia referred to what a source dubbed an ‘industry veteran’ had told the Times of Malta, who said that he or she was surprised that Andreina Fenech Farrugia wasn’t killed after she clamped down on some operators recently, and that the whole sector needs to be sorted out.

“In view of declarations by an unnamed veteran in the industry as reported by Times of Malta of 27 February, 2019 who made reference to a considerable level of enforcement on my part. I once again express my concern and question whether the attitude in my regard from some quarters was intended to stop me from continuing my work, including stricter enforcement, with the available resources at my disposal. In view of these recent revelations it is now clear that there could possibly have been some who had an interest to shift their blame by pointing fingers at me.”

Transcripts of conversations between her and Fuentes which were published in the press had indicated a possible close relationship. This newsroom asked Fenech Farrugia whether she sees this as a conflict of interest. She said she treated all operators equally and denied any conflict of interest.

“I repeat once again what I already said recently – that I have always followed the highest standards of professionality and fairness and always treated all operators equally and in the same manner and taken all appropriate actions where necessary. Hence, I categorically deny any wrongdoing or any conflict of interest on my part. I take the opportunity to refer to the various reports in the media which shed light on the fact that the Department was suffering from a shortage of resources, something which was beyond my control and I had to always operate with the resources at my disposal.”

She was also asked to provide a list of the “official payments” that were made between her and Fuentes. She did not provide this, and said: “I would invite you to enquire with the competent authorities who can provide you with the list of payments effected by the local companies of Fuentes and others, should the same authorities deem fit to provide you with such information.”

Recently, a number of fish farm operators contacted by this newspaper had the same general view: that Fenech Farrugia had always favoured Spanish tuna kingpin Jose Fuentes during negotiations and discussions and that she was, as one put it, “mostly inclined towards Fuentes and his industry”. But since the industry is so cagey, none were willing to go on record.

In what seems to be a separate case, another local fish farm operator, MFF Ltd, has been implicated in alleged fish smuggling; however, it has denied such claims.

 In mid-February, the CEO of the Maltese Federation of Aquaculture Producers, Charlon Gouder was also in Spain for legal consultations on the tuna scandal.

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