Sunday, 17 February 2019, 10:30 Last update: about 3 hours ago
The wake of the tuna trade fish farming scandal that surfaced this week has not only left the Maltese industry “seriously concerned” about reputational damage, it has also left a number of local operators wondering why they had not seen the writing on the wall earlier.
A number of fish farm operators contacted by this newspaper all had the same general notion: that disgraced fisheries director Andreina 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.
Fenech Farrugia was suspended indefinitely this week after Spain’s El Confidencial published transcripts that allegedly show how she asked Fuentes, also the owner of the local Mare Blu tuna farm, for payments.
The leaked transcripts also suggest that Fenech Farrugia was using her role to influence Environment Minister in favour of Fuentes, with whom she seems to have had a cosy relationship.
In the meantime, when contacted by this newspaper, Fenech Farrugia yesterday continued to steadfastly insist on her innocence, claiming that she was being “singled out”.
She told The Malta Independent on Sunday: “I am very disappointed that the issue is being taken from a very biased angle where I have been singled out in an investigation which concerns tens if not hundreds of individuals, entities or companies, possibly even local ones.”
As a case in point, she referred to this week’s airing of the Xtra talk show, for which, she says, she was “neither present nor invited to, nor was any representative of mine invited”.
She said she will be making a complaint to the Broadcasting Authority and the competent authorities over the matter.
Insisting on her innocence, she once again “categorically” denied any conflict of interest or any wrongdoing on her part and “strongly rebutted” all allegations in her respect.
“In the discharge of my duties I have always acted with fairness and impartiality with all the operators. Every time action needed to be taken against any operator, I acted promptly including by informing the Police where appropriate.”
She also insisted that the payments being referred to were made to her in her official capacity.
But perhaps more telling is the fact that she ignored the actual questions she had been sent, asking her exactly how she had been “singled out” and what other operators were involved, as she claims, in the investigation.
She did not provide this newspaper with a list of supposed “official payments” that were made by Fuentes to her in her official capacity, nor did she offer an explanation of her close relationship with Fuentes, as revealed by the transcripts published this week, and whether it constituted a gross conflict of interest.
And finally, she also brushed aside our question about why she had offered to meet Fuentes in his hotel room at either 11pm or 6am.
Industry calls for firm but fair enforcement and tougher penalties
Fish farm operators speaking to this newsroom said they were “seriously worried about Malta’s reputation being compromised due to Operation Tarantelo. That is why we are pushing for tougher legislation and serious enforcement.”
As regards enforcement, they agree that something must be done but it needs to be “firm but fair with tougher penalties for those who break the law”; as for legislation, they are calling for a level playing field at International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) between EU and non-EU countries.
Payments were always official – Fenech Farrugia
It transpires that the Malta’s Economic Crimes Squad has been investigating the case since last October and that a Magisterial Inquiry was opened to collect all the evidence, and investigate these allegations.
“Contact with the Spanish authorities was made immediately, with the assistance of Europol, both by the Malta Police and by the Inquiring Magistrate, and the investigation team also travelled to Madrid to meet the Spanish authorities on this case.”
Fenech Farrugia, meanwhile, insists that payments were only made to her in her official capacity and that she had never acted incorrectly: “I always acted in a professional, ethical and fair manner in terms of the law, and I was always impartial and fair with all operators and individuals involved in the sector,” she said.
She flatly denies having ever asked for or received money for personal use. Operators who were legally allowed to increase their tuna quota would have been required to make payments to the department which she represented.
“Official payments, in terms of the law, were made to me as director; it is obvious that if an operator was having his quota increased, he would have to make a payment to me as director, according to his quota increase in terms of the law,” she said.
The suspended director insisted that there were times where she had ordered action to be taken against this particular operator, as she had done with others when this was required.
Requests for an increase in tuna quotas were always handled in a transparent way by the competent authorities, and against payment of hundreds of thousands of euros to her as director as established by law.
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