Malta’s Fearne resigns, ends Commission bid, protests innocence

The former candidate for Malta's next European Commissioner resigned after it was revealed he will face criminal charges of fraud and misappropriation.

May 11, 2024 - 03:16
Malta’s Fearne resigns, ends Commission bid, protests innocence

Malta’s Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne has resigned from government and ended his candidacy to be the country’s next European Commissioner.

Fearne stepped down on Friday after a judicial document, seen by POLITICO, on Monday alleged he will face criminal charges over his role in the Vitals hospital scandal that has engulfed Malta’s government.

“I am resigning with immediate effect from the posts of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Government. Having the same respect for European institutions I also ask that my nomination to the College of European Commissioners is withdrawn,” Fearne wrote in a resignation letter to Prime Minister Robert Abela, posted on Facebook.

“My solitary and humble hope is that the judicial process to clear my name is expeditious. If, upon its conclusion, the country calls on me to serve again, it shall find me ready,” he wrote.

“No one can be as certain as I that the Court’s proceedings in my regard will confirm my absolute innocence.”

In response, Abela also posted on Facebook a letter asking Fearne to reconsider his decision. He said the two had worked together and that he had full confidence in Fearne.

Fearne was a leading candidate to replace Stella Kyriakides as European health commissioner after the EU election in June, given his years of experience in domestic and international health policy. He’s a current member of a global leaders’ group to tackle antimicrobial resistance and a former long-standing health minister.

This week, several MEPs on the European Parliament’s environment and health committee said they couldn’t support his nomination as Commissioner while the charges were pending. Politicians from Malta’s opposition Nationalist Party also urged him to resign.

Prosecutors will bring charges of fraud and misappropriation against Fearne, who denies any wrongdoing, as part of an investigation into a deal to hand over control of three hospitals to the Vitals Health Group in 2015. Fearne took over as health minister the following year.

In 2023 a Maltese court struck down the government’s agreement with VGH, which was taken over by Dallas-based Steward Health Care in 2018, after finding both companies failed in all their obligations.

At least 24 individuals are involved in the scandal and will all stand accused of varying offences, according to the Times of Malta.

“I would have preferred to have been notified of the charges and the procès-verbal of the magisterial inquiry regarding VGH/Steward before I acted,” Fearne wrote. “However since it seems that this process will take time, it is not possible for me to delay any longer. The country, including its democratic and European institutions, deserve no less.”

Fearne said that his stepping down “by no means implies that I harbour any doubts whatsoever about my innocence. I am taking it solely because it is the right thing to do.”

He pointed out once again that three reports by the National Audit Office cleared him of having any “meaningful involvement” in the Vitals deal. “In all my duties I have always acted with integrity, rectitude, and strictly within the confines of the law,” he wrote.

This story has been updated.

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