Economy Minister in the dog-house (actually, the Stable)

Published: July 19, 2015 at 12:20pm

Recently I heard from several quarters that the Economy Minister’s second wife – a Ukrainian who he married just before the general election after divorcing his first (Maltese) wife under the new legislation – has thrown him out of their Madliena home and that he is living in a flat at Portomaso borrowed, not rented, from his drinking buddy Silvan Fenech, whose father Ninu is one of Tumas Fenech’s several sons and a brother to the late George.

I ignored it at first (people say so many things), but then when reliable and serious people began to mention it, I thought I had better take the matter up with the Economy Minister himself and get the facts.

It is important to point out that it is not his wife having thrown him out which is the public-interest issue where a Minister of the Economy is concerned, but why she has done so (hanging around in bars on a daily basis and running around with ‘girls’), but mainly that he has accepted the loan of a luxury flat from a businessman.

The electorate, the media and the then Opposition were horrified when the Finance Minister received a home-made clock worth 400 euros from a businessman, when he was not yet Finance Minister. The story ran and ran in the general election campaign, driven by the fastidious Labour Party, because people in Malta have very high standards and cannot accept this level of shocking corruption.

So what on earth would they say about an actual Economy Minister staying, free of charge, in a luxury flat that would otherwise cost him several thousand euros a month in rent? I determined to find out, but first people had to know that the Economy Minister is receiving the gift of many thousands of euros in free rent from a man whose family is one of the key shareholders in Electrogas Malta Ltd, the power station company which has just received a loan of 101 million euros from the Bank of Valletta, with the government standing as guarantor to a maximum of 88 million euros.

And this is where I came up against a brick wall. Ringing the Economy Minister’s office and trying to get past his communications coordinator, former Super One reporter Jonathan Attard, or his private secretary, the glamorous bottle-blonde Dana Bonnici/Farrugia, would have been impossible.

The standard reply in these situations is “Send your questions by email.”

Can you imagine sending questions like those by email? It would be fun, but pointless. So I didn’t even bother ringing them. It would have alerted them to the fact that I was on his case while leaving me with nothing I could report to readers.

So last week while having lunch in Valletta I related to my companions the story of how the Economy Minister ended up in the dog-house. Apparently he was seeing some Russian woman, nothing serious, just another one of those things that keep happening when you’ve been married for a really long time like two years, but she wanted to take it to another level and got fed up being treated like a bit on the side, saying that she would tell his wife. Fatally, he called her bluff.

Now remember that this woman is Russian and the Economy Minister’s wife is a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. Both were majorly angry with him, both speak the same language, and both are strangers in a strange land. Had the wife been Maltese, things might have turned out very differently. But these two apparently hatched a plot.

The Bit on the Side rang the Economy Minister, described the underwear she was currently wearing, and suggested that he come over. He sped there in his chauffeured official car, flung himself through the door, threw off his clothes in the corridor and dashed into the bedroom to find (you can see what’s coming here, and it isn’t the Minister for the Economy)…his wife lying in wait with this other lady.

Much of this might very well be apocryphal, but it does ring true and the fact is that the Economy Minister is now living at Portomaso and spending every evening at the Stable Bar in Sappers Street, Valletta, where there is really quite a heavy scene.

By now we have left lunch and are at Charles Grech in Republic Street. One of my companions says that he knows who Silvan Fenech is and that he was at lunch at Da Pippo in Melita Street but would probably come over to Charles Grech after that as he generally did. “Oh good,” I said, “then I’ll wait and you can point him out to me and I’ll ask him whether he’s lent his flat to the Economy Minister.”

Fenech doesn’t turn up, so we leave and street sources (Valletta is great that way) tell us that he and his party have gone to “dak il-bar in-naha tal-General Workers Union”. My companions haven’t a clue what he means, but I know that it’s the Stable in Sappers Street because for the last two years I have received a steady stream of reports that the Economy Minister and his ‘chief of staff’ hang out there all the time and that the scene is heavy.

So I drag my appalled companions to the Stable. We walk through the door into a scene and it’s like in those old Westerns when John Wayne busts through the saloon doors and the whole place falls silent while people stare and then quickly go back to drinking and talking.

Now remember that we are looking for Silvan Fenech who is indeed right there at the bar, but meanwhile I have spotted the actual Big Prey, the Minister for the Economy, in a corner near the bar, with his arms folded and looking like he’s having some kind of existential crisis. His chief of staff, Mario Azzopardi, who owns those cheap boutiques called Pardi and Scruples, walks past me and glares with a drink in each hand.

Three Maltese women in their late 20s or early 30s, gyrating in hot-pants on the bar floor, fail to get the Minister’s attention or that of any other man despite trying really hard. For one of those weird, fleeting moments, I consider taking them to powder their noses and for a spot of Older Woman advice on How Hot-Pants Are Not Enough, My Dears and how they are wearing them all wrong anyway (there was a time when I was the hot-pants expert, but that was 20 years ago, so I should know). Then I realise that in a dive like this, powdering your nose means something else altogether and that you should never go to the loo in this sort of place because of that.

They are the only women there other than me. The place is the size of some people’s bathrooms and is literally heaving with shady-looking men, Valletta heavies and a couple of others who really should not have been there.

I’ve been to a lot of bars in my day – didn’t we all, unless we were tal-Muzew or led very sheltered lives – and can immediately pick up on a heavy scene and the sense that there is something else going on beneath the surface. Had that been a bay, the undercurrents would have made it dangerous for swimming. The Stable is that kind of bar.

I stand there deliberating whether it would be appropriate to go up to the Economy Minister, who is surrounded by heavies but yet at the same time looks like he is in a world of his own, and ask him what I want to ask him. One of my companions cuts to the chase by going up himself and asking him whether he would agree to having a word with me.

The Economy Minister signals for me to go over, but there is no way I am going to do that. Step into his heavy circle? Forget it. I gesture through the noise for him to come over to the door alone (this is a simple gesture which is universally understood by all men who are not autistic), and he does.

A surreal conversation follows.

Me: “Look, this is really awkward and embarrassing and I’d rather not have asked you the question in this situation, but now that we’re here I can’t see how else to do it so I’ll come straight to the point. I’m told by several reliable people that your wife has thrown you out and that you’re living in a flat loaned to you by that man over there at the bar, Silvan Fenech.”

The Minister for the Economy: “People say a lot of things. Even you say a lot of things about me, like lap-dancing.”

Me: “Yes, they do, and I know that more than most people. But if it were not true, you would tell me immediately. You might even look a bit shocked and surprised.” (His expression hasn’t changed from its flat effect.) So maybe I should rephrase my question, are you living at Portomaso in a flat lent to you by Silvan Fenech?”

The Minister for the Economy: “Where are you living?”

Me: “In Bidnija, where I have lived since I was 26.”

The Minister for the Economy: “It’s a nice place. I like it.”

Me: “So I take it then that it’s true.” (No response.)

We are both standing at the door like lemons. I have my back to the room and can feel the eyes of those heavies. But they don’t intervene because the Minister for the Economy displays no signs of hostility or anger. On the contrary, he displays signs of being intrigued by this welcome intrusion to yet another afternoon running into evening at the Stable.

Surprisingly, not even the ‘chief of staff’ comes over to police the situation, though it is his job protect his boss from just this kind of thing. Well, I think, if Mario Azzopardi knew that his job is to protect his boss from difficult situations, then he wouldn’t be accompanying him to heavy bars in the afternoon in the first place.

So I decide to do Mario Azzopardi’s job for him, however pointless. “I don’t think you should be here, Minister,” I say. And another surreal exchange takes place.

The Minister for the Economy: “Why not? Aren’t you here?”

Me: “Yes, but I only came looking for you. Well, for the man who’s lending you a flat, actually, and then I found you instead. And I won’t be coming again unless I need to ask you more questions, now that I know that this is where to find you. And in any case, I’m not a cabinet minister.”

The Minister for the Economy: “What’s wrong with it? Why shouldn’t I be here?”

Me: “It’s a heavy bar in the late afternoon and you’re the Minister for the Economy. The place is full of really unsuitable, shady-looking people, there are three girls on the make twisting about in hot-pants three feet away from you, the atmosphere is totally rough, and the context is not appropriate at all for a cabinet minister.” I say nothing about its appropriateness for a married man because that part of it isn’t really my business.

The Minister for the Economy, gesturing towards them with his chin: “Look, there is…and also….” and he mentions a beefy Valletta ex canvasser of a retired Nationalist Party politician, and a notary. I have no idea who they are and find out afterwards.

Me: “They’re not cabinet ministers. One is a rough canvasser and the other is a notary who shouldn’t be here either. This isn’t about which political party you vote for; this is about being in the cabinet. You’re in the cabinet. A cabinet minister shouldn’t be in a heavy Valletta bar surrounded by rough types in the late afternoon on a work-day or at any other time for that matter, but especially not when he should be at the office. And all these rough types have access to you because you’re here. And you’re being seen in their company. You choose to hang around with them.”

The Minister for the Economy: “You say that because you’re not liberal.”

This response is so ridiculous and out of left field that I burst into laughter. For a second there I think to myself that what do you know, Chris Cardona has a quick wit. Then I realise he means it. He is serious. That is not a dead-pan, ironic expression on his face. That is the flat effect of somebody in a depressed mood.

To my horror, it suddenly dawns on me that to those who can’t hear the conversation I might actually look like I’m flirting with the Minister for the Economy in a heavy bar in the late afternoon, surrounded by roughnecks.

I make my excuses and turn to look for my companions, who harry me to get out of there immediately because the atmosphere is getting tense and bar-regulars were deliberately knocking into them.

In the car, I wonder briefly what just happened there, because I can hardly believe it myself.

Economy Minister Chris Cardona with his head of secretariat, Mario Azzopardi, who owns Pardi and Scruples boutiques in Birkirkara, Hamrun and Paola

Economy Minister Chris Cardona with his head of secretariat, Mario Azzopardi, who owns Pardi and Scruples boutiques in Birkirkara, Hamrun and Paola

The Stable bar in Sappers Street, Valletta

The Stable bar in Sappers Street, Valletta