The Gibraltar Government and the Opposition – bar one independent MP – have rallied around Calpe House, expressing unreserved support for the charity and confidence in its trustees.
Government ministers, GSD MPs and independent MP Lawrence Llamas backed a motion tabled by Joe Bossano following months of intense public scrutiny of Calpe House and its purchase of new buildings in Norfolk Square.
Independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon, who has raised numerous concerns about the purchase and the way Calpe House runs its affairs, was the only MP to oppose the motion and said legitimate questions remained unanswered.
In presenting the motion, Mr Bossano lashed out at what he described as “a year-long campaign” by an anonymous person, Ms Hassan Nahon and the media “to undermine the charity”.
Mr Bossano was highly critical of some articles published about Calpe House in local newspapers and also attacked social media commentary on the issue, much of which he insisted was baseless, derogatory and borderline defamatory.
He said the government had no role in the running of Calpe House, although it provided support to the charity.
Even so, he said the charity had always consulted the government before taking a decision that required government backing, including the purchase of the new buildings.
Mr Bossano said the fact that the government supported the charity demonstrated its confidence in the trustees and the administration of Calpe House.
The negative campaign which Ms Hassan Nahon “has aided and abetted” has had a negative effect on people’s perception of the charity and its fundraising efforts, he told Parliament.
It was also having a detrimental effect on the trustees themselves.
“Don’t the people who do that understand that we don’t have a huge queue of people volunteering to do unpaid work for the public good?” he said.
“And that if people who do something for no monetary reward then find themselves pilloried, we’re going to have even less?”
“Why should anybody spend their time doing work for Calpe House on a committee and not getting paid…and finding they are having their integrity and honesty questioned?”
Mr Bossano insisted that there was no evidence to support any of the allegations aired over the past years, including suggestions in one local newspaper that money was not properly accounted for.
“How can anybody think that the money is unaccounted for?” Mr Bossano asked, insisting that the controversy was the product of either “a monumental level of incompetence or a determined effort to put doubt in people’s minds”.
In forceful terms, Mr Bossano said the allegations had also generated vitriolic exchanges on social media and claims that neither the charity or the government – and in particular Mr Bossano himself – could be trusted on this issue.
“If we’re going to replace trust by mistrust, then nothing will work in this place,” he said.
“If the people we’ve known all our lives we now cannot trust, even when there is no inkling, no indicator, nothing to show that money is missing or that anything is wrong, then what kind of society are we? What kind of people have we become in this place?”
In replying to the motion, Ms Hassan Nahon stuck to her position and said she believed it was “premature” and “disconcerting”, not least because she had yet to receive a response from the trustees to a detailed letter she sent recently setting out her queries and concerns.
She rejected the government’s position that it had no involvement in Calpe House – “semantics”, she said of Mr Bossano’s explanations – and insisted the government should itself investigate the concerns she had raised.
She added that “…if the trust thinks that the trustees have been defamed then surely there is recourse in law, and not a matter for this House to be involved in.”
“I do not think that this House should be in the business of effectively criticising and gagging the free press, and I will not be the one taking this dangerously undemocratic step,” she told MPs.
Ms Hassan Nahon said her own research and the media articles had pointed to a series of discrepancies that had raised alarm bells in the community.
“These discrepancies have been plentiful and are highlighted in depth in my lengthy letter to the trustees which I referred to earlier and which have given rise to a long list of unanswered questions,” she said.
Ms Hassan Nahon said she had been “inundated” with expressions of concern by many people in the community, including “…well-known, distinguished public figures who, for whatever reason, do not or cannot voice their concerns publicly.”
“I may appear to be a voice in the wilderness on this issue…but I can assure you it is not me alone who has reservations about the management of this charity,” she said, adding that she could not understand the GSD’s silence on the matter.
“It is every second or third Gibraltarian, our employers, who demand the answers, who are entitled to the answers, because they are the ones breaking their backs all year round to raise funds for this worthy cause.”
“So when those who want to twist my motives say that it is ‘disgraceful’ of me to call into question the workings of a charity, it is precisely because it is such a noble project that it should be open to scrutiny and that government should facilitate such scrutiny to its main donors, the people of Gibraltar.”
In explaining her opposition to the motion, Ms Hassan Nahon was a lone voice in Parliament.
Opposition Leader Roy Clinton, who has worked as a professional auditor for major global firms, said he had reviewed the Calpe House accounts and documents and found nothing untoward.
“There is nothing that I have seen so far that would warrant any form of investigation,” he said as part of a detailed submission.
“This community should stand full-square behind Calpe House.”
“If [Ms Hassan Nahon] has evidence, then by all means bring it to this House [and] I will be the first one to shout ‘murder’.”
“But I need to see the smoking gun.”
“I do not work on the rumour mill, I work on facts and figures. This is my bread and butter.”
Opposition MP Daniel Feetham said Calpe House and its trustees had been subjected to a “regrettable, lamentable and shameful” campaign that had been “inflamed” by Ms Hassan Nahon “…peddling her version of the rumour mill…without a shred of evidence.”
Mr Feetham said Ms Hassan Nahon was in effect suggesting there had been misappropriation of monies, “a serious allegation” for which “…there is simply no evidence at all.”
“She is doing it without a shred of evidence and without any respect for the damage it is doing to the reputation of people,” he added.
Mr Feetham said the trustees of Calpe House included very well known, high-profile people and that the idea they would stand by while money was “siphoned away” or improperly administered “was as fanciful as it is grotesque.”
“It’s a grotesque allegation that is being made without a shred of evidence,” he said.
Mr Feetham said the controversy around Calpe House was having an effect on fundraising efforts and silencing the important story of a community rallying around a core charity.
For his part, the Chief Minister said the community should take comfort from the fact that the government and the GSD were in “violent agreement” on the motion in support of Calpe House.
“We rarely agree on anything and on this occasion we seem to agree on everything in relation to this motion,” he said.
“If there were the slightest chance of us going at each other, we would grab it and seek to bring conflict from the jaws of agreement.”
“And if we’re not doing so, [Ms Hassan Nahon] needs to think carefully about the position which she’s taking in relation to Calpe House.”
Mr Picardo said while it was legitimate to ask questions, these should not be allowed to tarnish the charity or the trustees.
“There is unanimity in Parliament between the principle party of Opposition and the government that there is that confidence in the operation of the trust, in the aims and objectives of the charity and in the honesty and integrity of the trustees,” he said.
GSD MP Edwin Reyes described his personal experience of Calpe House while his late mother was fighting cancer, and the importance of having fellow Gibraltarians around you at such a difficult time.
He thanked the trustees for their hard work and gave his wholehearted support for the motion.
Eight government ministers – two were travelling and absent for the session – voted in favour of the motion, as did the five GSD MPs and independent Lawrence Llamas.
Ms Hassan Nahon voted against.